Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review: "Everyman" by Philip Roth

I finally understand why Philip Roth is so respected within the reading community. I read The Breast last year, and thought it was more goofy than great. Turns out I was starting with a very minor work (a minor one physically as well, clocking in at a slim 80+ pages). Roth really is a writer’s writer who appeals to readers as well. He has massive amounts of critical acclaim, winning a shit-ton of award (winning all the major American ones during the nineties) and getting praise from stodgy old blowhard academics like Harold Bloom. But I also feel his books can qualify as beach reading, in that none of them are extremely hard to follow, and they offer both a reasonable challenge as well as great entertainment value, much like a Murakami or Auster. Everyone has his or her critics, but for the most part, Roth receives almost universal love, and I think he deserves such praise. He has been writing for over fifty years and he is still going. He is something of a national treasure, and his novel Everyman is quite the achievement in his winter years. It is meditation on death that combines Bellow-esque and Kafkaesque themes to produce a short novel that is big on the meaningfulness of life. The unnamed central character in the book (very much like a Kafka story) is dead at the beginning of the book. He has a basic funeral that is very plain and non-extravagant, complete with a confused eulogy from his more successful older brother Howie. The novel goes on to explain his journey to the grave, which is just slightly more remarkable than the funeral itself. We see this man from his childhood, which is marked by a series of stays in the hospital and his obsession with his father’s jewelry and watch store (a keen metaphor on the idea of death being a running clock). We follow his continuing health problems through three failed marriages, resulting in three kids, two of which hate his guts, and the regret of choosing an advertising job over his artistic ambitions, a feeling that cripples his life from there on out. Finally we see him at his inevitable end, in a great scene involving a black gravedigger explaining very professionally how graves are dug and filled. It is great ending to this story that, although his fueled by anger and pain, comes straight from the heart. I try not to look at things like this cynically. I consider myself an aggressive optimist, so I seek out the silver lining every time I read something like this. Here, I see the story as kind of a modern take on Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, in that Tommy Wilhelm now being an old man, with his regret and anger taking form around him, leaving everything he loves in ruin. It really is kind of a call to action for anyone sitting around waiting for life to happen in a vast, modern world. It sees life as too precious for this kind of waiting to take place, and something too terrifying awaits those who fail to do anything. I beautiful book with a lot of heart, it is great to read something like this so late in the year.

Rating: 5/5

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