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In reading all the reviews I was reminded of how much I did enjoy his first Nathan Zuckerman novel- Ghost Writer. It was a short novel about writers and at that time I was filled with romantic ideas of the writer's life.
Of course, now, at an older age, many of my romantic notions have been tempered by the test of time but I still have admiration for all that Mr. Roth has produced; he is a giant of our times in literary terms.
Exit Ghost by Philip Roth, although more novella than full-blown novel, for Roth fans this is still a worthwhile read. The book lacks depth but it touches on themes that readers of contemporary American fiction will find satisfying.
The story is about the familiar, well-known yet fading novelist Nathan Zuckerman who, for much of Roth’s career, has served as his alter-ego. Zuckerman, forced by failed health to abandon his voluntary exile and solitude in the Berkshires, returns to Manhattan (for medical consultations) where he had once been vital, connected and active. His humiliating prostate condition has minimized his libido and resulted in his dependency on diapers. For a man of ego and vitality what can be more of a blow to one’s self esteem than a compromised, leaking penis.
His sexuality in tatters, he meets up with younger versions of his past self and liaisons. Richard Kliman, a young, bright, aggressive self-promoter looking to make a name for himself by writing an exploitive biography of E.I. Lonoff, the famed, yet now ignored and deceased novelist, who served as a mentor figure in the first Zuckerman book- The Ghost Writer. Also appearing from that novel is Amy Bellette, Lonoff’s lover, who also faces illness and is the keeper of Lonoff’s incestuous secrets and finds herself besieged by Kliman’s intrusive phone calls and insistent inquiries.
Kliman’s college girlfriend, Jamie Logan, a 30’ish beauty beset by anxiousness and the self-doubt caused by her unfulfilled promise of her own writing career, stalled since once of her short stories had appeared in The New Yorker. Her husband, Billy, is the typical “nice Jewish boy”, married to a beautiful shiksa whom he lovingly adores and dotes on; (of course this Rothian parody will be familiar to students of his oeuvre). Jamie seeks refuge from the post 9/11 New York City by swapping homes with Zuckerman.
Zuckerman, seeking to regain his lost sexuality and vitality, fantasizes about seducing Jamie but the imagined “he-she” dialogues he composes are trite and under-imagined.
Not to be overlooked much of the action takes place on Election Night 2004 and Roth offers up delicious take-downs of George W. and is clearly unabashed in his excoriating criticisms of Bush, Texas (where Jamie grew up) and how sophisticated New Yorkers were shocked to find that America had re-elected this bumbling fool (even Billy’s Jewish parents in Philadelphia buying into Bush’s pro Israel rhetoric).
For any reader of Roth’s career this is a must read. It is a coda to the Zuckerman journey and it also describes the pathetic dilemma facing baby boomer males as they face their own aging and fading physical prowess. How does one’s physical reality resolve itself to its still youthful fantasies? Does one find resolution in tummy tucks and face lifts seeking out younger lovers or does one age more gracefully seeking out the companionship of like- minded- and- bodied peers?
You also prompted me to take a look at Wiki and it is
interesting to see how many Zuckerman novels Roth wrote and how often he inserts himself into his work.
I think I'll jump in with American Pastoral and get it off my tbr list, an LTer suggested this as an entry point for Roth's work. Comments?
The way I described it to my wife at the time was that in the book Roth powerfully described the "still wanting" of the diminishing Zuckerman, but he falls short, way short, in showing us the maddening emptiness of the corresponding "not having; can't have."
I have been a Roth devote for a long, long time. For one thing, he was one of the three major authors I took oral exams on when getting my MA at San Francisco State. (Conrad and Chekhov were the others.) My first really powerful connection with Roth was reading The Ghost Writer while in grad school in the late 80s. I then went forward through the Zuckerman work, catching up and then avidly keeping up as the new novels came out, and of course went back and read all the earlier works.
So I was particularly excited about revisiting Zuckerman at this stage of his life. I did enjoy the book, but I think I'd really only recommend it for Roth fans. Otherwise, there are much better places to start. I agree with your assessment of American Pastoral as a good entry point.
My real favorite of the Roth books over the past 20 years or so, and in my estimation his real powerhouse from that era, is Sabbath's Theater. That one's a tough read at times, but very rewarding. The Human Stain is also high on my list.
I appreciate your entry. The Human Stain agreed was excellent and I do have a copy of Sabbath's Theater on my "to read" shelf. I remember well reading THe Ghost Writer many years ago and it is the on-going familiarity with Zuckerman that added to my involvement with Exit Ghost.
I am curious who are some of your other favorites and, this being a Jewish fiction site, which Jewish novelists do you favor?
by any chance have you ever read In The Days of Simon Stern by Arthur Cohen- when i read it back in the 80's;I was floored by it.
Off the top of my head, other favorite Jewish authors include Isaac Singer, Bernard Malamud and Elie Weisel. Singer, in particular, I find very moving because his body of work, taken as a whole, so lyrically walks us over that bridge from old world to new, from the past that is dead and gone to the puzzling, but very alive, present.
As to other Roth favorites, as a baseball fan, I'm partial to the Great American Novel. Also, Portnoy's Complaint is really brilliant. I think that book gets stronger with the passage of time.
I should explain, also, that I grew up in the Weequahic section of Newark that Roth also grew up in but some 20 years later. My father graduated from Weequahic High School and I myself went to Chancellor Avenue School. In Operation Shylock, Roth actually mentions the woman who was my second grade teacher, and the rabbi who remains the "voice of sanity" in The Plot Against America, Rabbi Joachim Prinz (http://www.joachimprinz.com/biography.htm), stood beside me as I read from the Torah at my bar mitzvah at Temple B'nai Abraham on Clinton Avenue. So you can imagine that the Zuckerman stories, and all the Newark stories, in fact, resonate with me quite strongly.
Sadly, I have not read the Arthur Cohen book you mentioned.
I totally agree about The Great American Novel and recently learned how Ethan Canin has a fascination with Willie Mays and the Red Sox: see The Palace THief. THis could be a whole other group: baseball books.