I’d never read any of Roth’s work until recently, when I read “The Plot Against America”. (I reviewed this recently on my blog). I was alerted to Roth’s work when I was reading Woody Allen’s autobiography and in it he mentions several writers who have either influenced him, or who he rates highly. Now I’ve finished “Everyman” I can see similarities between Allen’s characters and writing and Roth’s.
Both writers write stories about relationships, both are of Jewish background, both write about characters who are obsessed with sex and death, particularly the emptiness of death….when you’re dead the lights go out and that’s it.
My copy of Everyman is only a small novel 182 pages or average sized print but it’s well written and looks at one man’s life – his hopes and dreams – and his relationships. Sometimes in life we make decisions that we have a pretty good idea at the time are the wrong decisions for oh so many reasons, but we still choose to make them for short term gains, or instant pleasure, rather than looking at the long term effects of those choices and the problems that those decisions can cause – not just to yourself but to those around you.
We follow the life of one man – a successful commercial artist who worked for an advertising company in New York. The story begins with his death during a heart operation in hospital, followed by his funeral. From here we travel back in time – to when he was a boy and helped his father in the family jewelry shop. It’s a story about relationships. It’s about life and it’s about death and how, sooner or later, it befalls us all. We get to examine his relationship with his parents, with his older brother (who he adored and yet came to hate in his old age), with his three wives – as he was thrice married – with his children from the first two marriages…and his infidelities along the way. He’s one of those guys who is controlled by the urges of the libido rather than by letting logical thought take the lead. And when it comes to describing his character’s sexual liaisons Roth certainly leaves nothing to the imagination – he’s very up front and quite explicit.
All through his life, when it comes to a pretty face, or a stunning body – all traces of common sense, and common decency, take flight. He knows he’s making rash, irrational decisions based on lust. Even when he himself makes a point of letting the reader know how perfect his second wife is in so many ways – he still choses to cheat on her (repeatedly) with a much younger photographic model – and to hell with the consequences.
Of all of his decaying relationships, the one which makes no sense at all is the one that he has with his older brother Howie. As a child he idolized his older brother and as they grew up, they had a strong brotherly bond and a supportive relationship, but as our unnamed advertising exec reaches late middle age, his years of good, robust health come to an end and he develops heart disease, resulting in a number of operations. His older brother however, is still the picture of health and he comes to envy and despise him because of this and gradually, as years pass by, they become estranged.
Without wanting to give away the entire plot….it’s a quite remarkable novel about life, it’s mysteries and it’s strange ways of either working out, or turning bad in turn, and the bleak acceptance that death is waiting for us and that we have little to no control over when we take our final breath. It’s also about wasted opportunities, it’s about regrets and about his ideals not turning out how he hoped they would, even about himself not turning out as he’d hoped he’d turn out – as he becomes the kind of man he never wanted to be – and eventually it’s about acceptance. A human story…a story about the frailties of human life.
According to the blurb on the rear jacket of the book “Everyman takes its title from an anonymous fifteenth-century allegorical play whose theme is the summoning of the living to death.”
Douglas Kennedy in The Times writes – “The genius of this short, bleak, remarkable novel stems from the way that Roth turns his desolate assessment of death into something bracing: an angry acceptance that mortality is the price we pay for the sheer wonder of this thing called life“.