May 15, 2006 12:00 PM

by Philip Roth



A 71-year-old man complaining about his health for 182 pages may not be your ideal companion, but attention must be paid to the unnamed character who is the case study of this novella, Roth’s 27th book. The story begins and ends with the protagonist dead. In between he remembers his youth working in his father’s jewelry store in New Jersey, his successful advertising career on Madison Avenue and, above all, his glimpses of mortality, starting with his brief look at a body washed ashore at the beach and continuing through a long series of health crises.

As is typical in Roth’s writing, we are not expected to excuse gross moral failings. The man destroyed all three of his marriages—betraying his second and most devoted wife, Phoebe, by his affair with a Danish model. As a result, he’s despised by his children and estranged from a wealthy older brother whose robust good health he envies. Yet we feel for this man, who, at the end of his life, feels a “longing … to have it all over again.”

Of course there will be no happy ending, and with its anger, frustration and despair, this book isn’t for everyone. And yet it is. If there is a moral here, it is that most of us have more time than the man in the book to correct our mistakes and minimize future regrets. But even so, there’s a little of Everyman in all of us.

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