Roth follows his recent succession of critically acclaimed novels (e.g., American Pastoral, 1997; The Plot Against America, 2004) with a compact meditation on mortality, which partially echoes his 1991 memoir-novel Patrimony.
Inspired by the medieval English allegorical drama whose title it shares, it’s the story of an erring, death-haunted representative man (never named). It begins as his departed spirit observes his own funeral, then weaves backward and forward throughout his past life, envisioned as inevitable progression from virile youth through morally compromised adulthood and middle age, into “his sixties when his health began giving way and his body seemed threatened all the time,” and beyond—into the beyond. This Everyman grows up in Elizabeth, N.J., the son of a benevolent and prosperous jeweler, further blessed by a doting mother and a tirelessly kind and supportive “perfect” older brother. He enjoys a successful career as an advertising agency’s art director, but fails at marriage (losing three wives, as he pursues countless other women), and is almost as disastrous a parent, suffering permanent estrangement from the two sons of his first marriage, but achieving a sustaining relationship with daughter (from his second marriage) Nancy, whose patient filial devotion interestingly parallels that of the medieval Everyman’s character Good Deeds, who accompanies the title character into the realm of Death. This risky novel is significantly marred by redundancy and discursiveness (especially by a surfeit of rhetorical questions), but energized by vivid writing, palpable emotional intensity and several wrenching scenes—for example, encounters in the painting class that he (an amateur artist) organizes for other seniors at his retirement village; a blistering exchange with second wife Phoebe, long aware of his womanizing; a wonderful conversation with a black gravedigger at the cemetery where his parents are buried, where he’ll soon be buried.
A rich exploration of the epiphany that awaits us all—that “life’s most disturbing intensity is death.”