"An important book. A landmark book. A book by our greatest living writer. This is the guy that was voted to have personally written almost a quarter of all the greatest American books of the past 25 years. A misogynist, a genius, a comic. A parable, a missive, a diatribe."
Philip Roth's slim book has generated many times its word count in commentary and criticism. A lot of noise. At the end, you look at the words on the page and see what they do to you. One after another after another. All the hoo-ha really means nothing.Do the words on the page do something to you?
And with Everyman, Philip Roth does something. He looks, unblinkingly, at the great other. At death. Where others would flinch, he just stares harder. He is wrestling with it. He presents his unnamed character, Everyman, named after the character's father's jewelry store as every man. This is obvious stuff. But it frees Roth to deal with the deeper questions. Why do people's lives end? How do they live them? What shapes them? What do they leave behind? What do they take?
But he doesn't do it in a didactic or preachy way. He does it by telling stories, stories about a person. It's a very dark fairy tale for grown-ups. The darkest.
The book is slim. The book is concentrated. But it's not antiseptic. It's full of life and emotion and fluids and feelings. It has one or two of the most moving scenes I've ever read -- particularly the one when Everyman falls in love with an older woman in pain, and the one where he falls in lust with a younger woman in perfect health. An interesting part of the strategy is that by making the book so short, so concentrated, Roth makes it possible to experience the entire story in one sitting. Like a movie. Flowing.
The book is not an escape. It is a confrontation, really more of a brawl. In it, Roth says old age is a massacre. He bravely fights back.
There may be no place for religion or God with a capital 'G' in Roth's world, but there is a place for life and hope and fight and memory. And that, to me, constitutes a kind of religion in itself.
Importantly, he doesn't waver. He uses all the power of his art to take us to the brink, even a little beyond it. And he comes back with a prize. Truth
'Til next time...
Ken Krimstein Mr. Krimstein is a writer, cartoonist, professor, father, and grump who lives in Chicago. So there.