Forty years into a distinguished acting career, Simon Axler suddenly finds himself bereft of his ability to perform. His wife has deserted him and a halfhearted attempt at suicide lands him in a psychiatric hospital, where he meets a woman whose own struggle with depression haunts him long after his own discharge. His elderly but still enthusiastic agent tries in vain to persuade him to tackle the role of James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but Axler remains paralyzed by a fear of failure.

Into his life strides Pegeen Mike Stapleford, a 40-year-old lesbian college professor, who happens to be the daughter of two of his lifelong acting colleagues. Despite having watched her nurse at her mother’s breast and being fully aware of her incompatible sexual orientation, Simon hurls himself into an intense and invigorating relationship that has him contemplating a return to the stage—and even the possibility of starting a family with his new lover. Alas, this brief interlude of imagined happiness quickly mutates into a distorted image of itself, as Simon all too swiftly discovers “the failures were his, as was the bewildering biography on which he was impaled.”

Befitting the story of a professional actor, The Humbling unfolds in three tightly structured acts, featuring an intense focus on character and a Chekhovian economy of language and detail well-suited to its taut subject matter. In his 30th book, Philip Roth frankly revisits his lifelong preoccupation with the persistence of raw sexual desire, exploring both its regenerative power and the seeds of self-destruction it bears.

In this searing novel, Roth adds dark shadings to the austere vision he has explored in recent works like Everyman and Exit Ghost; there are precious few shafts of light that break through his clinical examination of one man’s catastrophic fall from grace. But in recounting with unrelenting precision the grim story of Simon—not a bad man, simply a tragically human one—Roth offers another unflinching assessment of the essence of our mortality.

Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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