Exit Zuck

A Profile

By Mark Shechner

Published October 24, 2007, issue of October 26, 2007.
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Exit Ghost

By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 304 pages, $26.

Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy & Epilogue 1979–1985: “The Ghost Writer,” “Zuckerman Unbound,” “The Anatomy Lesson,” “The Prague Orgy,” and (previously unpublished) television screenplay for “The Prague Orgy”
By Philip Roth
Library of America, 645 pages, $35.

Reading Philip Roth’s new novel, “Exit Ghost,” is like running into an old friend, and being stunned by the changes. Of course he is older: So are you, though you don’t see it in yourself. In him you see the intervening years in an instant: There is a hesitation in the gait, as if he is now concentrating on his step. The shoulders slump forward, he has two or three days’ stubble of beard and, though you don’t remember him as ever being the most buoyant guy in town, he appears now to be depressed and simmering. He’s bending your ear, hysterically, about people on cell phones.

The old friend is Nathan Zuckerman, whom you first met in 1974, when he served as a secondary character in “My Life as a Man.” He was hardly alone as a fictional leading man for Philip Roth. Indeed, top billing in “My Life as a Man” went to Peter Tarnopol, a stricken figure who might be taken for Roth in his more desperate hours; “Deception,” “Operation Shylock” and “The Plot Against America” all starred characters named Philip Roth who bore tantalizing resemblances to their author; the more sex-obsessed of Roth’s novels (“The Breast,” “The Professor of Desire,” “The Dying Animal”) featured David Alan Kepesh, a sort of Jewish bonobo whose compulsive sexual behavior was lightly moderated by feeble charades of self-restraint; and then, of course, there was the immortal Alex Portnoy, the Captain Ahab of self-abuse on the wailing ship Newark.

And yet, it is Zuckerman who has proven — undeniably — to be the most adaptable and the most durable of Roth’s alter egos. It was Zuckerman into whom Roth downloaded his own exquisite radar, his intelligence, his irony, his indignation and his moxie, his adaptability and resilience, his belligerence and bite, his broad spectrum of agonies, his eye for character, his ear for culture, his nose for trouble. And it is only Zuckerman who, if Roth’s statements are to be believed, the author felt compelled to euthanize. “Exit Ghost,” he has said, will be the last Zuckerman book.

At death, life should be remembered. And thus, it is fitting that “Exit Ghost” is being published at the same time as the latest Library of America edition of Roth’s work, which republishes the very books that, taken together, offer a diorama of Zuckerman’s ascent: “The Ghost Writer,” “Zuckerman Unbound,” “The Anatomy Lesson” and “The Prague Orgy.” Roth could not have known this when he set out to write his Zuckerman saga, but it must have become clear to him over time that he was describing, through Zuckerman, a life cycle: youth through age. In the end, Zuckerman’s triumph over the Kepeshes, the Tarnopols, the Portnoys, the Neil Klugmans and others as Roth’s spokesman would take on the outlines of a Darwinian epic as only Roth could imagine it: the survival of the glibbest.

Nathan Zuckerman made his debut in “My Life As a Man” where he was a stand-in for the lachrymose novelist Peter Tarnopol, a martyr to marriage who was so patently a surrogate for Philip Roth that Roth titled Tarnopol’s narrative in that novel “My True Story.” Zuckerman appeared as Tarnopol’s own creation, a storywriter who wrote two other sections, “Salad Days” and “Courting Disaster (or Serious in the Fifties).” Thus he was a surrogate for a surrogate, himself a “useful fiction.” And being different from one story to the other, he started out in life as a pliable figure, a man for odd jobs and improvisations.

In writing that book, Roth discovered that Zuckerman worked in ways that the hangdog Tarnopol did not, and the author decided to bring him back for an encore. That encore was “The Ghost Writer” (1979), the book that some critics regard as Roth’s most finely wrought novel. Set in 1956, it features a young Nathan Zuckerman, all of 23 years old, escaping from the literary hothouse of New York City to the rustic Berkshire home of an elderly writer, one E.I. Lonoff. Lonoff is himself a fugitive from the glamour and the glare of New York literary life: a grey eminence who, despite seven books and a National Book Award, has scarce recognition and desires even less than he has. Having renounced all passions save sentences, Lonoff has devoted his life to le mot juste, to turning sentences around until he has gotten them right, and Zuckerman is in awe of such dedication. “This,” he tells himself, “is how I will live.”

Lonoff in turn has taken a shine to the brash young writer who has published only a clutch of stories but whose voice “is the most compelling voice I’ve encountered in years, certainly for somebody starting out.” Less eager to cheer that voice is Zuckerman’s own father, who is outraged by his son’s most recent story in which the nasty details of an old family feud over an inheritance are laid bare, and all of Jewry thereby informed against.

As his day in the country unfolds, however, Zuckerman gets more than he had bargained for, as Lonoff’s marriage unravels before his eyes, catalyzed by yet another visitor, a beguiling young woman with a foreign accent and the provocative pseudonym of Amy Bellette. As it turns out, Zuckerman has his own dreams of Amy, whom he imagines to be Anne Frank in disguise, having survived the Holocaust and now seeking asylum and anonymity in New England. If only he could marry Anne Frank, all would be kosher again in the Zuckerman family.

“The Ghost Writer” ended inconclusively: Who was Amy Bellette after all? And what to make of the imperturbable Lonoff, so self-contained, so secretive, so inaccessible? “The Ghost Writer” had a cool perfection to it: It was reserved and contained in an almost Lonovian way; it possessed a delicacy that was rare for Roth, and featured characters about whom it was possible to care.

But “The Ghost Writer” had no immediate sequel, and Zuckerman was not entirely a continuous character. Instead, Roth kept him on the payroll for the same reason a baseball team keeps a utility infielder: Zuckerman was his one-man all-star team. Nathan appeared in “Zuckerman Unbound (1981), where his infamy for writing the scandalous “Carnovsky,” a thinly disguised “Portnoy’s Complaint,” ushered him into the nightmare world of celebrity. If “The Ghost Writer” was about the penalties of art, then “Zuckerman Unbound” was about the penalties of fame, with Zuckerman no longer able to walk the streets without recognition. The epitome of that recognition is an ex-marine, Alvin Pepler, a connoisseur of odd facts who has been the victim of a quiz show frame-up — he was promised a reward for flubbing an answer — and follows Zuckerman around, desperately complaining that he could have been somebody. He is another plaintiff in Roth’s serialized court of appeals. Worst of all, Zuckerman’s alienation from his father has deepened, and the father dies with the word “bastard” on his lips. “Zuckerman Unbound” was a more agitated book than “The Ghost Writer,” its Zuckerman more defensive, more alienated. The character was on his way somewhere, and that way was down.

Indeed, Zuckerman reached a nadir in “The Anatomy Lesson,” (1983), where his literary afflictions become physical ones as well — an excruciating pain in the neck — and he makes efforts to extricate himself from his predicament by (1) dosing himself on alcohol and pain killers; (2) applying to medical school in Chicago, to give up the literary life once and for all; (3) making an overheated phone call to the literary critic who has brought him the greatest misery, one Milton Appel, and (4) summoning up out of his fevered and drug-addled brain a scurrilous monologue that casts Appel into the role of a pornographer.

That book, coming 24 years before “Exit Ghost,” gave the appearance of Roth throwing in the towel on Zuckerman. He had certainly given his character nowhere to go from his hospital bed at the end of that book. He was, by Roth’s own design, “a loser,” and how do you sell that to a reading public addicted to hope?

By necessity, then, it was a different Zuckerman, one without this history of beleaguerment and nervous breakdown, whom he sent off in the novella “The Prague Orgy” (1985) to Prague to rescue Yiddish manuscripts. A product of Roth’s intense engagement with Eastern Europe in the 1970s, that novella brought together Cold War politics (the plight of Czech intellectuals under Communist rule) with Jewish history (lost Yiddish manuscripts that are to be rescued by Zuckerman) and the gallows humor of Czech life under the Soviet heel. It has density and brio and is the least self-absorbed of all the Zuckerman stories. For a moment, Roth’s visits to Prague brought about a remarkable new direction in his writing: What he discovered there was a world as paradoxical, irrational and infuriating as any invention of Kafka’s, and a literature that took the horrifying and the ridiculous as the normal state of affairs. Roth was drawn away from his own personal crises, and all of his wit and extravagance, his anger and his social conscience, his erotic anarchism and his contempt for authority are simmered down to a quintessence. The book brought the “Zuckerman Bound” series to a brilliant, even rousing, conclusion.

Roth kept up the Zuckerman drumbeat in “The Counterlife” (1986), a story cycle in which five distinct Zuckermen enact five variations on a theme of wandering Jewish life, and gave him a kibitzer’s role in Roth’s thin memoir “The Facts” (1988), coming on at the end to tell Roth how shallow he finds it. Through most of this, however, Zuckerman never came entirely into focus as a person. He was rather a quick-change artist who accommodated Roth’s ever-changing scripts. To be sure, as a partial stand-in for Roth himself, he was more likely to play Esau than Jacob, the prodigal than the homeboy; he was most comfortable as the Promethean rebel (“What’re you rebelling against, Nathan? Whaddya got?”), the victim of incomprehending rabbis and fulminating critics, the lightning rod for random urban flotsam, the whipping boy of intellectual bandits, the companion of international literati, the astonished pilgrim to Israel, the writer in flight from his writing. Roth gave Zuckerman a host of juicy parts to play, but they all cast him as a rebel and a fallen soldier.

When Roth brought Zuckerman back again in the second Zuckerman trilogy, “American Pastoral” (1997), “I Married a Communist” (1998) and “The Human Stain” (2000), it was as a non-combatant only, a reclusive writer living in the Berkshires who had become the recipient of stories that are brought to his pastoral retreat by people in need of an ear. He dreams up, with some help, the story of Swede Levov in “American Pastoral,” after a high school reunion; the trial of Ira Ringold in “I Married a Communist” is brought to Zuckerman’s door by an old high school teacher, Murray Ringold, and Coleman Silk’s Greek tragedy of being the self-betrayed man in “The Human Stain” is delivered to Zuckerman by Silk himself. By the late 1990s, the now-cloistered Zuckerman brought the life story full circle and was living out the promise he had made to himself upon meeting the ascetic E.I. Lonoff in “The Ghost Writer”: “This is how I will live.”

That promise, made nearly 30 years ago in “The Ghost Writer,” sets the stage for “Exit Ghost” — in which Zuckerman breaks it just long enough to regret it.

In this novel, Zuckerman returns as a full character. At 71, he is sexually sidelined and incontinent from a prostatectomy. His concentration is shot and he needs a “chore book” to remember what he has to do: “It’s as though a switch has been pulled… as though they’re starting to shut the circuits down one by one.” Politics bore him, even on Election Day 2004 as George Bush takes Ohio. And as for women: been there, done that. His urinary tract is his main preoccupation, and he has come to town for collagen injections to line the walls of his urethra and restore bladder control. In the meantime, he goes about with “plastic underpants with strongly elasticized edges designed for incontinent swimmers.” Having been away from Manhattan for 11 years, living in rural seclusion and devoting himself exclusively to his writing, he feels like an “eviscerated stranger” and “a relic of bygone days” come back from a long sleep, Rip Van Winkle in sopping undergarments.

He returns to the free-fire zone of Manhattan as an outpatient. He could have taken his injections and fled back to Sleepy Hollow unscathed but for a passing glimpse in the hospital of a frail elderly woman “with a faded red rainhat pulled low over her skull.” “The side of her head facing me was shaved bald, or had been not too long ago — a fuzz was growing there — and a sinuous surgical scar cut a serpentine line across her skull, a raw, well-defined scar that curved from behind her ear up to the edge of her brow.” She is Amy Bellette, now 75 and suffering from a brain tumor. Once the femme fatale of Zuckerman’s dreams, she is now destitute in a Manhattan tenement, living in isolation and squalor. Zuckerman learns that she mourns Lonoff after 40 years, keeps his shoes in the closet and speaks with him every night. She tells Zuckerman, “We’ve circumvented very nicely the predicament of his being extinct.”

Mesmerized by this return of the repressed, Zuckerman finds a house exchange, and in so doing leaps into something a lot deeper than his rural swimming pool. The husband and wife wishing to trade domiciles with him are young and literary: Jamie Logan and Billy Davidoff, who seek space to write away from post-9/11 New York. Jamie just happens to be the hottest item Zuckerman has seen in ages, but then he’s been spending his evenings with chipmunks and waterfowl. Zuckerman may no longer be equipped for romance, but he can still dream it up, as he did four decades before with Amy Bellette. After each visit with Jamie, a pedigreed debutante from Houston whose lineage is nothing compared to her measurements, he scurries back to his hotel to scribble out a mannered Chekhovian drama titled “He and She.” Prostatectomy? What prostatectomy? Nathan Zuckerman never met a breast he didn’t like, and I’m guessing that Jamie Logan is a 36D, enough to charm even the stodgiest Golden Ager right out of his Pampers.

Through Jamie, Zuckerman meets one Richard Kliman (climbin’?), the audacious and persistent biographer of the deceased Lonoff. Kliman is in possession of an unfinished novel that Lonoff wrote late in life, after his marriage had broken up and he had taken up with Amy. He has cracked the code of Lonoff’s reclusiveness: incest and perennial shame over a youthful relationship with an older half-sister. (The reference to Henry Roth is obvious.) Would Zuckerman help him coax information out of Amy and then shill for the book when it comes out? Within a day of arriving, Zuckerman is assailed by the careerism, the egotism and the literary racketeering of New York intellectual life, and finds himself up to his eyes in a Walden of slime. This would be challenging enough for even a vigorous man, but with the swamp gas arising from his own lap, Zuckerman is particularly touchy.

I’ll let the reader discover what develops between Zuckerman and Jamie Logan. Zuckerman may be impotent, incontinent and forgetful, but ancient sediments of desire can still get churned up. There is a politics to “Exit Ghost” after all: the politics of being insatiable after all these years.

Roth has told interviewers that “Exit Ghost” is his last Zuckerman book, and that he will henceforth soldier on without his trusty alter ego at his side. A wise decision; the once adaptable Zuckerman, the great utility infielder, has turned to stone. Rage or no, nothing can halt his downward spiral into depression, and unless Roth wants to bring him back one more time on uppers — a little crystal meth for the old guy? — it is time to pull the plug. So goodbye, Zuck. It’s been wonderful knowing you.

Mark Shechner is a professor of English at the University of Buffalo and author of “Up Society’s Ass, Copper: Rereading Philip Roth.”


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