Philip Roth's fond farewell to his literary alter ego
Through nine novels, beginning with The Ghost Writer in 1979, Philip Roth has created one of the enduring characters in American literary fiction: Nathan Zuckerman. Now, in Exit Ghost, Roth offers what is likely to be Zuckerman's final appearance. Although Roth's many admirers hope he'll produce more works of consequence, in many respects the novel feels like a summing up, both for a character some have seen as Roth's alter ego and for the author himself.
Zuckerman has returned to New York City after 11 years of self-imposed exile in the Berkshire Mountains. Nine years after surgery for prostate cancer has left him incontinent, he's undergoing treatment to ameliorate that condition. He meets a pair of young writers, Jamie Logan and her husband Billy Davidoff, and impulsively offers to exchange his remote cottage for their Upper West Side apartment for one year. Zuckerman finds himself attracted to Jamie, and his fantasies about a budding relationship unfold in scenes from a play he entitles He and She. Through Jamie and Billy, Zuckerman meets an ambitious young man who's researching a biography of the writer E.I. Lonoff. Zuckerman had spent a single evening with Lonoff and his lover, Amy Bellette, nearly 50 years earlier, and that evening has haunted him for the rest of his life. He reconnects with Amy, now in her mid-70s and dying of brain cancer, and the two of them join forces to thwart the biographer, who's determined to reveal a terrifying secret from the late writer's life.
Exit Ghost is a complex and sometimes disturbing exploration of the line between truth and fiction, the essence of the writing life and the nature of literary fame. It bears all the familiar hallmarks of Roth's fiction: lush and sinuous prose, unsparing insights into his characters' interior lives and a psychological acuity that is at times as comical as it is heartbreaking.
Last year, when the New York Times asked a group of distinguished novelists to vote for one novel they considered the best of the last 25 years, six of Roth's books received multiple votes. With Exit Ghost, this pre-eminent figure of modern American literature has added another fine novel to his acclaimed body of work.
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.