By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 192 pages, $24.
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My grandmother Rebecca lived to 100, but, as was typical for a person of her time and place, from an early age she witnessed severe illness. Born on the outskirts of Vilna, she arrived at Ellis Island in 1901 as a young woman, worked in a sweatshop on Rivington Street, married my grandfather and in short order bore four children. Family and friends in both the old country and the new succumbed to tuberculosis, diphtheria and other maladies of the period. Her only daughter, Pessimindle, developed appendicitis at the age of 6, and since there were no antibiotics at the time, she died. During the Great Depression, my grandfather suffered a series of heart attacks that led to a fatal stroke. Then, my father, in his early 50s, had a massive myocardial infarction and did not survive. It came as no surprise that my grandmother would often end a story about her life with the statement “Gezunt iz di ershte zakh,” “Health is the primary thing.”
This aphorism took on palpable significance when I began practicing as a specialist in cancer, blood diseases and AIDS. While some of my patients would survive and others not, all were acutely aware of their mortality and all struggled to find meaning in their plight. This struggle sparked in my mind the question that follows from my grandmother’s aphorism: Und vos iz di tsveyter zakh? And what is the second thing? What do we have to hold on to in life as a bulwark against the lashing forces of disease and debility? This question, of course, is the central concern of narratives of illness, and it serves as the pivot point of Philip Roth’s brilliant new novel, “Everyman.” In its genre, it stands as a masterpiece.
Unlike my grandmother and other Jews of deep faith — who found comfort in the knowledge that family members would recite Kaddish, and that their souls would be sheltered under the wings of the Shekinah — Roth’s unnamed protagonist, our Everyman, is the archetype of the modern Jew who has long abandoned such prayers and pieties. Early in the book, Everyman is standing next to his brother, Howie, at their father’s funeral, musing angrily to himself about religion: “Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn’t stand the complete unadultness — the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers. No hocus-pocus about death and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him. There was only our bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us. If he could be said to have located a philosophical niche for himself, that was it — he’d come upon it early and intuitively, and however elemental, that was the whole of it. Should he ever write an autobiography, he’d call it ‘The Life and Death of a Male Body.’”
Indeed, it is the body that works to undo Everyman’s soul. After his failed first marriage, which leaves two bitter sons, Howie warns him not to squander his second chance with Phoebe, an intelligent, caring woman with a Quaker heritage. But, of course, a Rothian protagonist is an avatar of the folly of the male psyche. Not only does Everyman cheat on Phoebe with a young Danish model who opens herself to him front and back, but he also lies repeatedly to his wife. “What did I do so wrong,” Phoebe asked, “that you should want to humiliate me like this? Why should you want to unhinge everything? Has it all been so hideous? I should get over being dumbstruck, but I cannot, I, who never doubted you, to whom it rarely occurred even to question you, and now I can never believe another word you say.… The basis of everything is trust, is it not? Is it not?” It
is, ultimately, deceit that poisons love, rather than the fact of his straying.
But love is also poisoned by the jealousy that comes from the caprice of DNA, embodied in Howie, the robust, successful and caring older brother of our everyman. Howie makes a fortune at Goldman Sachs, retires early, never suffers from a serious sickness, never is forced to slow down, and enjoys his wealth and acclaim. And this health embitters our ailing Everyman so that he becomes estranged from his beloved brother.
Neither does work prove sufficient to hold our Everyman upright. Although he experiences a successful career as a creative director at an advertising agency and then enters a retirement village where he can paint and teach art, he suffers a series of clinical crises with clogged coronary arteries and a blocked carotid, each requiring surgical intervention. Moreover, his “students” in his retirement village, of similar age and pedigree, are themselves afflicted with the maladies of the elderly, and only one has any real talent. She has recently lost her husband, and can find scant relief from the searing pain of a degenerated spine. Everyman’s friends from the ad agency face their own medical problems: cancer, stroke, severe depression. Roth accurately and powerfully captures the charade of conversation as Everyman telephones his sick friends and offers words of encouragement in a setting in which the body no longer has hope.
People’s expectations in my grandmother’s century about the life and death of the body were fundamentally different from those of today. There was no dazzling technology like MRI scans that show the normal and distorted architecture of each of our organs; no sequences of DNA around which novel drugs could be sculpted; no bypass pumps to rest the heart and lungs while a surgeon revitalizes them. Today’s medicine trumpets its prowess in the media, showcases its triumphs and implicitly makes promises to the public that, with enough knowledge and skill, the devastating effects of most diseases can be allayed if not reversed. And while it is true that as physicians we do so much more for our patients than our predecessors could imagine, each person will arrive at a moment when the accumulated toll of time and living cannot be stemmed by even the best medical care. Science will never be the avenue to eternal life; death will remain a fact of our world. Ironically, the promises of modern medicine make it hard to accept these things, since today, health is taken as a given rather than as a gift.
“Everyman” is a cautionary tale to be read by both the healthy and the sick. Few of us, when healthy, pay sufficient attention to what is substantial in our lives, and when we fall ill we often are hard pressed to make up for lost time. Roth brings into tight focus what endures and what falls away as we approach the end. Seeking refuge from his crumbling world, and connection to a time when his life seemed ordered and secure, Everyman visits the cemetery and speaks to the bones of his parents. This scene would bring to the mind of my grandmother and her peers who were steeped in Torah the vivid imagery from Ezekiel that is read in synagogue on the Sabbath of Passover, his prophecy over the dry bones. In contrast to this biblical promise of redemption, there are no sinews and flesh restored to the bones of those who have gone. There is, though, the mysterious power of memory, the memory of the love and the work of those who came before us, the love and the work of our healthy lives, for better or for worse. It is, we hope, in the end for better, or as my grandmother would say after a person had died, “May he be remembered for the good.” This is all that remains of us when we are gone.