Dead Man | The Nation


Dead Man

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But the novella does have one great strength. It is the brutal directness with which it faces the way we die now, with its long ordeal of illness and treatment and illness resumed: the medicalization of existence; the alienation from the body; the mechanization of the body through the apparatuses of enfeeblement--stents, braces, wheelchairs, implanted defibrillators (a word that, the first time the protagonist hears it, sounds like "something to do with the gear system of a bicycle"). Doctors, supposed figures of redemption, come to seem like agents of an obscure malevolence, their masked forms reminding the protagonist of terrorists. Finally, in the long spiral of senescence, comes the terminal hopelessness, the sheer waiting to die. What has gone, meanwhile, is all sense of connection, not just to others but to life itself. "One once assertively in the middle of everything...was now in the middle of nothing." The medieval Everyman, on his way to the grave, loses his friends, his kin, his five senses, loses knowledge and beauty and strength and discretion, and so does the modern one. Nor is he alone. Along with the protagonist's decline, Roth gives us those of his mother, his father, his second wife, three of his former office-mates, his friend from the retirement community and her husband. Cancer, heart disease, stroke, spinal degeneration, suicidal depression. "Old age isn't a battle," the protagonist thinks, "old age is a massacre."

About the Author

William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer whose Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and...

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Like his medieval predecessor, Roth's everyman has lived a sinful life. He walked out on a disastrous first marriage, leaving two embittered sons behind; then, at age 50, on a second, loving one, to a mature and generous woman, for a fling with a weak, vain beauty half his age (anal sex, expensive jewelry, Paris), justifying his "crime" (as he himself calls it) in the stupidest possible way--by making her wife No. 3. Later, as his body begins to fail, he destroys his oldest and most sustaining relationship, with a strong, kind older brother, out of helpless envy for the latter's continued good health. By the end, after the inevitable third divorce, he is left with only Nancy, the daughter of his second marriage, and then, after her mother suffers a stroke and can no longer live alone, not even with Nancy. His working life, as an advertising executive, was beyond reproach, but his retirement from Manhattan to the Jersey shore leads him into a desert bereft of companionship or meaning. The point of all this, however--lest we begin to think ourselves superior to this egotist, this tail-chaser, this failed father and husband--is not that he's a particularly bad man, but that he's a man. In the eternal Rothian struggle between desire and duty, we all fail. That's why the book is called Everyman. It is not about everyone who sins, it's about everyone, who sins.

Still, despite the announced universality of its title, there is a historical dimension to the story Everyman lays out, and it is the same history Roth has been pursuing across his last four novels. Like the protagonists of the trilogy and The Plot Against America, the central figure here grows up during the 1930s and '40s with hard-working parents in urban North Jersey in what is still essentially an immigrant community. These fathers do not chase tail or walk out on their marriages. Their sense of masculinity stems not from sexual prowess but from their success in deserving the adjective that is the father of Everyman's protagonist's highest term of praise: "reliable." Are these better men than their sons? No. Their lives are simply bounded by a different set of norms and expectations. In fact, the tragedy of their sons is that their very different lives--postwar, fully American lives--have neither bounds nor norms nor expectations. You can blame the 1960s, but you'd also have to blame the '90s, and the '50s, and the '70s and '80s, and maybe even the late '40s. All that had once supported responsibility in its battle against selfishness is now gone, leaving us alone against our impulses.

To the tendency to idealize our fathers or grandfathers, a tendency that Everyman's protagonist also shares, Roth replies through the mouth of Murray Ringold in I Married a Communist--b. 1907, veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, wise teacher, courageous union leader, apparent moral exemplar if ever there was one. The last delusion to go, Murray says, is "the myth of your own goodness." When Roth appears to be railing against sexual constraint, as he seems to do most obviously in The Human Stain, he is actually railing against hypocrisy, against the aggrieved self-righteousness that I Married a Communist calls "moral ambition," and that is embodied in that novel by McCarthyism, in The Plot Against America by nativism, in American Pastoral by the New Left, in The Human Stain by the impeach-Clinton crowd on the national level and the PC police on the local one, and in Everyman by the protagonist's two sons, hugging their psychic injuries for dear life, refusing to forgive their father for the sin of being human.

The medieval Everyman could look forward to heaven as the reward for true repentance. Here, for the protagonist, whose father was a jeweler, regret, the secular version of repentance, leads to a secular version of heaven, a vision of "the perfect, priceless planet itself...his home, the billion-, the trillion-, the quadrillion-carat planet Earth!" But this moment of what we might call the astronomical sublime, which recalls Zuckerman's vision of the stars at the end of I Married a Communist, is quickly undercut by a final reassertion of both the certainty and the nothingness of death. The secular version of the afterlife is the grave. Unlike its medieval model, Everyman offers no comfort for the moment when Death comes to call. But it is not the job of the truth to make us feel good. It is the job of the truth to be true, and it is our job to deal with it.

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