Like many of my generation, Philip Roth first pierced my consciousness with Portnoy’s Complaint. I have forgotten most of it, since I read it around 1970, soon after its publication. Beyond the startling fact that this guy trumpeted thoughts and actions which were, let’s say, not totally unfamiliar to me (NOT the liver scene!), the former teenager (and many young men I knew), I was shocked, nonetheless. The shock inhered not so much, then, in the existence such thoughts and actions, but in their being written down and published! This was a different era, after all - before emotional exhibitionism became epidemic, indeed de rigueur, along with moral posturing with various social/political contortions.
Portnoy struck close to home not only metaphorically but geographically. You see, I was born in Newark NJ, as was Roth; Newark and environs are where many of his stories are set. I grew up nearby, in Elizabeth, where much of Everyman is set. You don’t forget the names of places like Frelinghuysen Avenue. My paternal grandparents were friends of Philip Roth’s parents (his father and my grandfather, Abe, regularly played Pinochle together); they told me the Roths had disowned Philip and never spoke of him. My father and his younger brother went to Weequahic High School as did Philip Roth. Abe had founded Chain Curtain Store on Broad Street Elizabeth and I suspect the model for the fictional jewelry store, called Everyman’s, was just a few doors down the street from Chain Curtain - just beyond the Regent Theater. Though I can’t recall the name of the real place, it fit the physical description of the fictional Everyman’s Jewelry Store to a T. Amongst the nostalgia these images provoke - I can almost feel my grandfather’s pride at having founded his store - him, a penniless, formerly illiterate refugee from Ukrainian persecution - just like everyman’s father. The newly-sainted Ukrainians, you see, were then just a few decades ahead of the Nazis in violently exterminating Jews, driving many to emigrate (making themselves fortunate twice over).
Everyman little resembles Portnoy in terms of sexual/pornographic shock. This is a simple, non-obscene, non-pornographic story (with merely one or two rather comical small exceptions which are necessary to the story), which begins at the graveside with the protagonist’s burial. His final request was that those present shovel all the dirt back into his grave themselves, rather than the gravedigger. The cemetery is located on the edge of Elizabeth NJ where it meets Newark Airport. Even that setting brought up intense memories of what, in my childhood - both the then small airport with a small single story brick terminal building (and free parking) and the Jewish cemeteries where several of my ancestors were buried. This was before the “de-colonization” of air travel; Newark was so inconsequential back then that, to fly to most destinations you had to first take a helicopter to either Idlewild (now JFK) or LaGuardia. New York Airways flew these really cool twin-rotor Boeing Vertol 107-II helicopters; a kid’s dream - the future in action!
Everyman sets the stage with an epigraph from John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale:
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow.
Though this novel is short, its 197 pages manage compress the essence of a man’s entire life story - a zip file, of a sort. Much of the pathos is found, as suggested by the epigraph, during the protagonist’s lonely retreat into a retirement community - with some contact mainly with his daughter and less and less frequently with his generous and loving older brother, Howie - at the New Jersey shore. We are never given the name of this man whose entire essential life is revealed. The story is told by an innominate third party with a few monologues and dialogues among the characters interspersed. The essence of the story is a happy childhood, then repeated failure at marriage/family, while at the same time pursuing a successful career as art director at a big, advertising firm in NYC. He abandons his first wife and two sons for a passionate romance; he abandons his second, more sympathetic wife, again, for passion (here is the locus of the more risqué vignettes) in the mistaken belief that passion would somehow spare him the inevitable pain of his vulnerability and mortality. It is as if he says to himself, “as I am so intensely alive as when in the throes of passionate sexuality, I simply cannot become seriously ill or die”. I suspect he is not alone in living out that unarticulated, addictive, fantasy. In fact, he becomes seriously ill, repeatedly and bitterly resents his older brother for enjoying his good health - though he does not resent his brother’s even greater financial success. The illnesses and his musings in retirement represent the main forum of the story.
Much of the power of the story and pertinence is for those my age (77) or so. It can be found in the frequent memento mori which intrude in his retirement from work and the loneliness following dissolution of his final marriage. His only succor comes from the daughter of his second wife, who does not abandon him, as have the two sons of his first marriage. A second theme of his reflections - to which us elderly can relate - are his re-kindled memories of formative moments of his childhood. The nostalgia of such memories, both those in the book and those evoked in me by way of their universal human meaning, is intense and at times heart-rending. He wonders - is that is the purpose of old age? - the wish to recapture moments whose value he was unable to fully appreciate as he actually lived them. This is a notion which has occurred to me more than once in my dotage, as I recall such precious moments and wish I could somehow, magically, re-live them with my present knowledge of their meaning and context in my life as it nears its end.
Perhaps the most poignant scene in the book is the protagonist’s conversation with an experienced, thoughtful black man in his 60’s who is the longtime gravedigger at the Jewish cemetery where his parents are buried. As the man is working, our everyman asks about the job of digging graves and receives clear, articulate answers - making the job both mundane and meaningful - like most of life. It is a wonderful scene, whose full context only becomes apparent when the book closes. Reading his book would be worth the price of admission for that scene alone. However, much human wisdom can be found in Roth’s later writings and they suffuse this brief, sad, touching tale.
Maybe this is a book which ought not be read by those under 50 or so years of age. For me, it would have been OK, though, had I done so, only because I never needed that admonition memento mori. I had been given the gift (or the curse) of having that awareness never far from my consciousness, it seems, since I first became self-aware. I have been long practicing the thoughts revealed in Everyman, even as I lived out my bag of tricks, including those of the protagonist, to hold this awe-full awareness at bay. In my formulation, addictions - like everyman’s sex/love addiction - in modernity, are a not very functional but temporarily effective means of denying or delaying awareness of our ultimate vulnerability (“I can be hurt”) and mortality (“I will die”). Neither continuous awareness of impending death nor complete absence of the thought, represent a healthy psychic economy.
Our erstwhile mentors, the Ancient Greeks, aspired to “The Golden Mean”. To me, that is the most sound and humane manner of understanding the temporariness of our existence. In Everyman, Philip Roth has provided a manual “How Not to Do It”, or alternatively, how to live your life so to guarantee loneliness and isolation in addition to existential fear as you approach your inevitable end. Not a small part of Roth’s art is found in giving us readers an accurate overview of a believable human being whom we get to really know. We view him clearly from on high - we see the full context of his entire life - and can perceive the full meaning of the events described as he lives them.