Everyman, by Philip Roth

Warmth and wisdom in the final act
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Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre". So muses the unnamed commercial artist whose life story Philip Roth recounts in this sombre, but always lively, novella. His friends and mentors are dying, while his scarred body bears witness to the complicated surgery it has been surviving - sometimes by a hair's breadth - for years. His own assignation with the Grim Reaper can be postponed, but not cancelled. Death is waiting to lay its icy hands on him.

Roth's title alludes to the 15th-century morality play in which the hero battles with fear and despair in order to attain the Christian resignation that is the prelude to redemption. He has to shake off his life-long complacency before he embarks on his final journey. He seeks companionship, but finds no one eager to accompany him, except Good Deeds, who stays with him all the way to the grave.

Roth being Roth, there's not much resignation here, and redemption is too lofty a notion for both author and character to contemplate. The best Roth's Everyman can ask for is to have some of his sins forgiven, and his daughter Nancy does just that. Her mother Phoebe, Everyman's brilliant and observant second wife, is the most interesting and attractive woman Roth has created, although present in relatively few pages.

The artist leaves her when he is 50 for a Danish model named Merete, who reawakens his tired libido with her startling availability. Merete is helpless and hopeless when he falls ill, thinking only of herself. The scene in which Phoebe challenges her feckless husband to be truthful about his relationship, such as it is, with his brainless bimbo is memorably painful. For once, in Roth, the rejected and abused woman is given the very best and most persuasive lines.

Nancy is her father's Good Deeds: a single mother with two kids, who doesn't understand that she's a victim. She loves her dad, with the same unjudgmental affection she affords her mother. Roth portrays her without sentimentality, honouring her generous spirit. She almost compensates for the fact that Lonny and Randy, the sons of his first marriage, carry their loathing of him to his graveside. They are, in effect, Regan and Goneril to Nancy's Cordelia.

The book opens with Everyman's funeral in the Jewish cemetery in New Jersey. It is now in a state of decay, the names and sentiments on its crumbling grave stones difficult to decipher. Everyman's industrious, loving parents - Dad owned a jewellery store known as Everyman's - lie there, and it's his last wish to join them.

Before he does so, he pays a visit to his desired resting place and meets a black gravedigger, devoted to his job, who speaks with the authority of the true artisan about the way he measures out a grave. This is a beautiful sequence, reflective and warm, which captures in secular terms that sense the great metaphysical poets convey of death's closeness to everything that lives.

Everyman has a few tiny imperfections, but it is Roth's awesome achievement to have accounted for an ordinary existence with such narrative grandeur. It reminded me at times of Philip Larkin's valedictory masterpiece, "Aubade", which also brings the bad news melodiously and unforgettably.

Paul Bailey's next novel, 'The Freedom of the Night', will appear next year

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