In the medieval morality play Everyman, the eponymous hero is summoned by Death to give a final account of his life in this world. Everyman, immersed in sin, pleads, bargains, weeps, seeks fruitlessly for help and, finally, repents; as his body sinks to the grave, his soul rises to heaven. In Philip Roth’s novel Everyman, the anonymous hero also faces death, also looks back on a life of error, also finds himself bereft before the grave. But here there is no repentance, no soul and no heaven: “Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life…. There was only our bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us.” In the end, instead of angels, there are only doctors; instead of salvation, extinction.

Everyman belongs to a minor strain in Roth’s work–along with The Breast (1972), Deception (1990) and The Dying Animal (2001), it is the fourth in a series of novellas that have punctuated his steady production of ambitious novels over the past several decades. The four bear a family resemblance that goes beyond their length (and that distinguishes them from Goodbye, Columbus, the 1959 novella that inaugurated Roth’s career). Each presents a narrowly focused fictional world largely stripped of social context: a few characters, a couple of settings, a minimum of descriptive elaboration. The aesthetic means are similarly restricted: Deception is told entirely through dialogue; The Breast takes place in the mind of a man trapped inside the gland into which his body has been transformed. These are not short novels, fictions in which the novel’s imaginative expansiveness has been placed in the service of a relatively limited subject, but something else, narratives that possess a deliberate spareness and self-conscious artificiality that are akin to those of a laboratory experiment.

The reason for these austerities lies in the thematic horizon the four also share. These are narratives that know only two realities: desire and death. Which means, in fact, that they know only one reality, the body, stretched tight between the twin poles of its fate. “There was only our bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us.” Our bodies drive us to betray others, and then our bodies betray us. They bring us ecstasy and then they bring us death, and in these works the two are always tightly intertwined. In The Dying Animal, whose title could serve for the whole series, the protagonist’s young lover goes from having beautiful breasts to having breast cancer. In The Breast, the protagonist’s body is itself destroyed in becoming the object it craves. In Everyman, a hernia to the left of the groin and a burst appendix to the right are shots across the bow that prefigure a long siege of ruined virility.

In fact, we’re told, if the protagonist of Everyman had written an autobiography, he would have called it The Life and Death of a Male Body, and the title is clearly offered as an alternative one for the novella itself. The adjective here is key. Masculinity has long been a central issue for Roth: what it means to be a man, how one becomes a man, how one retains one’s masculine potency. It is not surprising, then, that health in his work is virtually synonymous with sexual health, losing one with losing the other. The protagonists of his recent postwar trilogy–American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain–are all physically powerful men, athletes or fighters or both, manly heroes in the American mold, their virility thrown into relief by the admiring gaze of Roth’s narrative alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who has been rendered impotent, he tells us near the trilogy’s start, by prostate surgery. One of the chief tragedies in Roth’s last novel, The Plot Against America, is the loss of the ability of Newark’s Jewish fathers to fulfill their masculine duty to protect their children from the world’s assaults.

Nowhere in Roth is the equation of health and virility more explicit than in Everyman. After quintuple bypass surgery, the protagonist’s health is restored through the carnal vitality of his nurse. A nubile jogger’s erotic interest gives him, at around age 70, a final, fleeting moment of rejuvenation. There is the hernia, and the appendix. But the equation is more far-reaching than that. If health implies sexual potency, potency implies a quality–at once physical and psychological–that stands at the center of the Rothian man’s relationship to the world, a quality that Everyman calls “confidence” or “force.” Life, for Roth, is a fight, a contest, something that demands unwavering energy, resolve, fortitude, even aggression–hence those boxing, brawling, footballing heroes. Lose the starch in your soul, the starch in your pants, as the protagonist of Everyman does through a long series of medical complications, and you’re already as good as dead.

Roth’s novellas have something else in common, which is that they are not among his best works. It is tempting to say that in stripping life down to its elemental components of desire and death, they give us a kind of concentrated essence of his full-length works. In fact, it is precisely what they strip away that gives his major novels their substance and value: the social world itself, in all its history and density and detail and, above all, its agonizing conflict between impulse and responsibility. If desire faces off against death in the novellas, as it does for every animal, it faces off in the novels against duty, that very human construct. Roth, whatever is sometimes said of him, is not a cheerleader for sexual license. Indeed, it is precisely his recognition of the claims of responsibility that gives his novels their dramatic tension, the struggle of id and superego that produces alike the comedy of Portnoy’s Complaint and the tragedy of the postwar trilogy. The Rothian corpus itself, in its painstaking sifting of moral questions, its untiring effort to discover the truth, is an act of profound responsibility. So is the Rothian style, with its orderly sentences and sober diction (from which the odd obscenity only occasionally screams out, rebellious). Roth never says that the claims of desire are just, only that they are inescapable. But in the novellas, with their different emphasis, the countervailing claims of duty are either absent or quickly overwhelmed, and the sex itself can seem morally weightless.

This is less true in Everyman than in the other novellas, and while the new book may not be one of Roth’s better works, it is by no means a bad one. It suffers most from its use of a third-person narrator, a technique Roth has scarcely employed in decades. There is no Zuckerman here, no David Kepesh, no “Philip” or “Philip Roth.” The idea, presumably, was to endow the story with the kind of universality that its title demands and that too individualized a narrative voice would have disrupted. What we’re left with, however, is no voice at all, or a voice so bland that it doesn’t register as one. But voice is everything in Roth (one of his most Jewish characteristics): a voice that rants and rationalizes and ridicules and turns back and around and in on itself. Not for nothing does Lonoff, Zuckerman’s mentor in The Ghost Writer, praise the young man for having a voice “that begins at around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head.” Absent such a voice, Everyman is drained of Roth’s characteristic energy and immediacy.

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.”

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.