Friday, June 30, 2006

The Gripes of Roth

The Gripes of Roth
Book Review. Everyman by Phillip Roth. 2006 Houghton-Mifflin

Dov Burt Levy
Jewish Journal-Boston North June 30, 2006

Every American, certainly every Jew, should have read Philip Roth. His span of subject, over almost 50 years, has been immense and every book, so far as I remember, has a Jewish component. When the New York Times queried writers and readers earlier this year about their choice of the greatest work of American fiction in the past 25 years, six of Roth’s books made the cut, more than any other single writer. In my book, he’s number one.

Roth has more awards than any other living writer, including Pulitzers, National Book Awards, Pen-Faulkner awards and more. His first book, “Goodbye, Columbus,” was published in 1963 when he was 26; his 28th book, “Everyman,” was published this year, at 73.

“Everyman,” a spare, small work of 182 pages, is, in fact, a medical biography, written as no medical tome has been written before. Primary care physicians and hospitals keep medical histories from their point of view; this book is the patient’s side of the story, and thus an important read for every doctor. It could have been titled, “The Life and Death of a Human Body.”

The first sentence in the book tells us the main character is dead; the last paragraph tells us under what circumstances he died. In between is a medical saga, interwoven with all of the important people in his life, from birth to death at 73, the same age as Roth is today.

It is, of course, much more than a recital of a patient’s medical history. It describes how the main character perceives life, deals with it, lives with it, fights for it, and begins to accept the finality of it. On this subject, few American books, if any, have been written. It is not a topic that grabs the average reader because they (we) are so afraid of it. I am sure that is the reason why it stayed on the best-seller lists only a short time. My recommendation is: read it.

The main character is an artist-executive in a New York public relations firm who retires to paint, and then to teach painting. He is not named and the book itself has no chapters. For the purpose of more easily writing this review, I will call the principal character Rath. Why? Because like most of Roth’s books, “Everyman” is rich in autobiographical content and surely contains the author’s heart and soul. Rath’s aging process is quite common, devoid of esoteric or seldom-seen diseases.

Rath was raised in a middle-class, non-dysfunctional Jewish family in New Jersey. His father worked many years for a jeweler and, at 33, opens his own small jewelry store (15 feet wide and 40 feet deep), calling it, Everyman’s Jewelry Store. He made, as we say, a living.

Unlike so many fictional characters, Rath cannot blame bad parents for bad events. Refreshingly, he loves them and they were good to him. His brother, a good youthful athlete, becomes a wealthy Wall Street professional and corporate CEO.

And so the story progresses. Rath is honest, perhaps more honest than most people would be about their lives, as he goes through the trials, tribulations, euphoria and regrets of three failed marriages. He has two sons from his first wife who hates him, one daughter from the second wife who loves him, several lovers and would-be lovers, as well as friends and co-workers. There is no government or politics or social issues; this is the story is of one man’s life, and as Roth titles the book, it could be every man, or at least, every American-Jewish man, if not every American man.

Roth has gotten a bad rap in the Jewish community for some earlier books, his first two in particular, “Goodbye, Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Too much sex, too much focus on the bad, ugly, crude side of Jewish life, his critics said.

I understand the criticism. But now, if you haven’t already, it is time to give Philip Roth a pass on whatever excesses and perceived insults to the Jewish community he committed as a youthful writer. Yes, Rath is an agnostic Jew, one who is not sure about God but very sure that he has no interest in organized religion. Still, both in Roth’s personal life, as well as in Rath’s, he is more than respectful of the Jewish community and of his family’s place in it.

At the end of “Everyman,” in another stroke of masterful writing, Rath visits his parents’ grave in a now unkempt, dilapidated Jewish cemetery, and has a long conversation with the man digging a grave site for a burial there later that day.

Like me, you may have thought that you had no interest in the details of taking off grass, digging a hole to the right size and depth, disposing of the earth to be displaced by the coffin, leaving the proper-sized mound of earth for the family to place on top of the grave, and caring about the person who does the work. But when Roth’s characters tell you about it, you listen. And learn. And appreciate. And even cry. Because you know, or can guess, that is where Rath, as with all of us, will soon be buried. And there the book will end.