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There are such things as books of age. I read Sons and Lovers at 21, but as I read I realized that there’d never again be a time in my life I would know the book so well. It’s a novel that exhales the passion of youth, that burns for love and for sex. It was the first time I realized that no one reads the same text twice.

Philip Roth’s Everyman is such a book of age, which I don’t say only because my boss, who loaned me her copy, said as much when I handed it back to her expressing my reservations: “You might be too young.” She loved it, she said, because she saw something in it that’s true about aging; she also loved its concise prose. Mom too, who read it the weekend she visited last October, liked it for similar reasons.

The best reading of Everyman I can give it is to read it as a post-9/11 novel. In part the novel turns on the man’s decision to leave New York City after the World Trade Center fell. Afraid of terrorists he runs to seek meaning in art, but he finds none. Fear, though it motivates the man to act, does not make him change. He lived a shallow, degenerate life before 9/11 and a degenerate, shallow life after. His life is empty of the things that would truly fulfill him: not only love—he does receive that from his daughter—but also forgiveness and repentance and trust and thankfulness. These are the things he cannot gain by running away, but run away is all he does.

Even so, I thought the novel almost as bland as its title is intended to be universal. Amidst a succession of open-heart surgeries, while his body becomes more and more decrepit, a man takes stock of his insolent life. He has nothing of which to be proud: his several marriages collapsed because he cheated on his wives; his retirement, which was to the Jersey shore to paint, failed because it gave him no meaning. The prose is precise, unaffected, and for those reasons is nice, but it’s nothing to marvel at. Indeed, a fourth of the novel is description of medical procedures, and another significant portion of it explores his lust and its fulfillment, with rather mixed dialogue. Much of the novel reads like a nineteen-year-old’s pornographic fantasies. Imprinted on my memory, for example, is this atrocious dialogue: when he is fingering a lover’s anus, she asks, “If you’re so interested in that hole, why don’t you use it?” There is little more to the novel than an expression of the universality of desire, failure, and regret.

I cannot deny that such hopelessness should be the realm of novels, and I agree in theory that even the despicable deserve the interest of authors. But Everyman makes me sincerely desire more sympathetic clarity: truly, I want to say, shouldn’t there be something to redeem it? I never finished Lolita—I despised Humbert Humbert—but I could appreciate its aesthetic payoff from its first page. Everyman, however, is no Lolita.



shouldn´t we be grateful that not everyman is a lolita?

By the same token, should we be grateful that everyman spends his life betraying everyone he loves, discovers nothing special in life, and dies lonely and alone?