The recent creative surge that has produced some of Roth’s best fiction continues with this intense short novel narrated by David Kepesh (protagonist also of The Breast and The Professor of Desire), who’s a more highly eroticized counterpart of Roth’s other serial alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman.
The subject is Kepesh’s reluctant arrival at the threshold of old age and his unquenched vulnerability to the spectacle of sex, to which he wryly refers as “the imbecility of lust” and “the chaos of eros.” Its specific focus is his memory, eight years after the fact, of his consuming affair with Consuela Castillo, a beautiful Cuban-American student and the last of a series of younger mistresses who had assuaged his aging for more than 40 years, dating back to the early years of his long-ago (only) marriage. Kepesh’s detailed anatomy (no other word will really do) of Consuela’s charms stimulates brief memory glimpses of other women (some companionable divorcées of mature years, others embodiments of the swinging ’60s whose boldness simultaneously delighted and puzzled him), as well as more discursive (and labored) reflections on “Lord of Misrule” Thomas Morton of Puritan Massachusetts’s “Merry Mount” colony; Kepesh’s tortured relationship with his middle-aged son Kenny (another victim of sex, to whom his vagrant father is a dead ringer for Dostoevsky’s lustful patriarch, Karamazov pére), and—in the most potent scene here—the last hours of Kepesh’s closest male friend, an adulterous poet who incarnates man the “dying animal” (a phrase from a Yeats poem) clinging to the last fumbling vestiges of the sexuality that enables him to deny death. Roth then struggles, with mixed success, to pull these strands together in the climax, which occurs on the cusp of the recent millennium, as Consuela returns to him, to confront the fact of her own mortality.
“This need. This derangement. Will it never stop?,” Roth’s most sexually importunate figure demands of himself. Probably not—and we’ll probably be treated to further ruminations on why this should be so in a future David Kepesh novel.