The older Philip Roth gets - he is 73 - the more skillful, economical, perceptive and quietly daring his novels become. There is an irony in this, given the atmospherics of his amazing new novel, Everyman, which explores old age, infirmity, isolation and the inevitable yet always surprising fact of our personal extinction.

We meet Roth's nameless protagonist (who is about the same age as Roth himself) at his funeral, where his estranged sons, loving daughter, older brother and surviving friends and relatives gather to remember him, not always fondly. Then the story moves back in time, not in a straight march to childhood, but circuitously, like consciousness itself, as an aging man remembers - or dwells upon - incidents in his life and on the progressive debilitation of old age. "Old age isn't a battle," the protagonist thinks at one point, "old age is a massacre."

Like most Roth protagonists, the hero of this story is not entirely likeable. Thrice married, a sometimes wandering husband, perhaps a sexist, estranged from his sons, filled with opinions we might disagree with, he has nevertheless been a dutiful son, a good father (to his daughter, at least) and, strangely, a loving ex-husband to his first wife. But most of all he is possessed of consciousness and an inner life and a moral (not moralistic) sense of himself that we respond to. Roth's great art has always lain in his ability to illuminate these inner selves. Here Roth is at his most artful, because the consciousness he writes of is facing the annihilation of its own consciousness, which is, of course, the fate of every man.

The first Everyman was a medieval morality play in which death refined every man's understanding of what was true and good and eternal. With a nod - or perhaps a wink - toward that original, Roth asserts something quite different. In this slender, enthralling, beautifully crafted novel about aging and death, Roth vividly reminds us of how intensely sweet life is.

 

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