Book Review: *Everyman* by Philip Roth

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.


Wonderful essay, thank you, CW!


As an ancient Greek reputedly said – Youth is wasted on the young.


F. Capra used that proverb in It’s a Wonderful Life.


It is interesting you, and by extension the author, fail to mention any spiritual life. To Live and Die In LA IS kind of a metaphor of all those who get so caught up in their own lives as to fail to grasp there IS more to life than simple living. It is unfortunate as they will pay a terrible price for that, here and hereafter.


My own views of the spiritual life are sharply divergent from Roth’s character. While everyman doesn’t articulate them, he surely affirms the value of life and its inherent struggles. Much of the story, as I understood it, tells how this man sought existential comfort by losing himself in his work and his passionate pursuit of women: “I will be ok and feel safe and worthwhile as a human being (and I won’t have to think about mortality) if just this one becomes as obsessed with me as I am with her” (that is not love, BTW). Rinse, repeat this all-consuming passion play - of a different sort. You might say it is life by misdirection, avoidance of answering the hard questions - whose explicit statement and examination are necessary to live a full life - a spiritual life.

Myself, I have been on a spiritual quest for as long as I can remember; I tried to quiet or avoid it at times through the temporary and destructive mechanism of various obsessions/addictions - both ingestive (drugs, food, alcohol) and process (workaholism, food, exercise to excess, obsessive serial love affairs). They didn’t answer any questions, merely postponed them.

After all that fails, that defeat signals the start of the real spiritual work. Defeat means admitting that one’s own powers do not suffice to answer the real questions: Why am I here? Where am I going? What is the meaning of my existence? What is the nature of God? Where does my separate existence fit in?

The best answer to this conundrum I have come up with is to associate with others who have these same longings and are willing to discuss them honestly. The image I summon at times is of my remote ancestors huddled around a fire with members of their tribe, enjoying a few moments of respite, warmth, camaraderie and maybe, sometimes - wonder as they looked up to the stars.

At times, in my eternal longing for answers, I have earnestly tried several religions. I hoped to be swept away, transported or transformed by an irresistible spiritual experience. For me, this has never happened, so I keep going on - with the sense I will not likely find the satisfying answers I crave, at least not in this life. I hope there is an afterward - the thought of non-existence is both mysterious and terrifying to contemplate - but the best evidence I can summon is that consciousness of self after death is like that before birth. Perhaps it is “the peace which passeth all understanding”. I wish I could find the faith of some people I know and love, but I am unable to do so.

Forgot to mention that I’m not familiar with “To Live and Die in LA”.


A thoughtful and honest response.

I am sorry you have been unable to find solace anywhere. I have found it in Christianity, and it has given me a much happier outlook on life and what all surrounds me, good and bad. I find wonder at all the connections between all the Old Testament prophesies and the New Testament fulfillment. These are things, markers, that have been laid down sometimes over 2,000 years before Christ. I go to an Orthodox church, but mostly from custom - I was born Serbian Orthodox, and find that service comforting. But I am not a divider; Jesus made ONE church and all the denominations since have been man-created. I do not find myself knowledgeable enough to complain about one sect vs another; I tend to follow the Book when contemplating God as that appears to be the only consistent yardstick. I use a Bible that is a direct translation of the Aramaic as that, too, will have the fewest influences of the authors or translators.

I am convinced every man finds, or at least seeks, God in his own way. The fact we suffer along the way may be an indicator we are going about it wrongly or looking in the wrong places. Being no scholar nor theologian, it is not my place to confirm or deny such ideas. I am in church to receive communion; any other positive is a bennie.


I do find some reassurance in the practices of Christianity - so different from the Reform Judaism in which I was raised. My dad once summed up his operant spirituality with an admonition (informed I now understand, by his upbringing during the depression, when his father came home one day and put a few bills and coins on the table and said, “That’s all there is left”.) which I never forgot: I had told him I was afraid I wasn’t going to get good grades in Hebrew school on Sunday. He said, “Don’t worry about how you do in Sunday School; just do good in school during the week”. Yet, in the few years before his death, he lived in Strasburg PA, where “Living Waters” Christian theatre put on enactments of Bible scenes - mostly New Testament. He was in a wheelchair and had tickets, so we went together. I was pleased and surprised to see he was very moved - so unlike his younger self.

My own introduction to Christianity was as a result of my first marriage (I was 21, she was 18) to a woman who had been a true child musical prodigy. Since age 13, she was organist and choir director of a local Methodist Church. She had perfect pitch; she looked like Brigitte Bardot (the pouty woman-child). She soon attended Juilliard, where, on full scholarship, she attained a bachelor’s, masters and Ph.D. I was no longer around for much of that (she ran away with her organ teacher while I was a medical student in Lausanne, Switzerland). Anyway, while we were together, over 5 years, I was a member of her choir at several churches. She moved from Methodist to Episcopal, where I found a much stronger musical tradition. There, I was the rector’s friend (he baptized me) and served as acolyte for the early communion service. There is much sacred music and especially hymns which, indeed, stirred my soul (I still listen to hymns frequently while driving). This was a time of my life when I was lost and needy. For the next 15 years or so, I busied myself with intense medical studies (at which I had to, and did, excel because of my workaholism), residency and work (at which I also excelled) until my fall/defeat by addiction.

My current wife was also raised a Methodist in West Virginia. The “fire and brimstone” she experienced as a child scared her away and she hasn’t set foot in a church ever since she went to college. I simply fell away shortly after that first marriage dissolved and became busy with first, licking my deep wounds, then trying to succeed in medical studies back in the US (I had left med school in Lausanne because I was too devastated to continue, but got back on track after a year or so of painful self-imposed isolation). My spiritual life improved tremendously after a one-year long bout of opioid addiction, which I experienced as a total defeat of my self will. Long story short, I found 12-step recovery to be an operating system for how to truly self-actualize - in both the material and spiritual realm. This is an attenuated version of my spiritual quest, filled with the deepest longings.

One of life’s most important spiritual questions, which is what we have been talking about, is: on whom or what can I rely or depend? There is a famous quote in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. It says: "Our real reliance is always on God. He will show you how to create the fellowship you crave". God knows, I have always been aware that I could not do life myself. I have been craving something outside myself for comfort. That is the experience of every recovering alcoholic/addict I know (and I know many). That fellowship is what I was referring to in my last comment when I spoke of the best answer I have found to my spiritual questions. I think it is similar to what happens in many churches (or other forms of worship). It is in a sense like our ancestors huddled around the fire, sharing a few moments of warmth and comfort together, in the cold, dark of night, in their sense of smallness and vulnerability, in awe of an incomprehensible universe on display above their heads.