Axler's Theater

by Elaine Blair
from the New York Review of Books

One of the rare funny moments in Philip Roth’s recent novel Everyman (2006) takes place when the unnamed hero visits his parents’ graves in Newark. His health has been poor, his colleagues and friends have been dying, and though he has no reason to think that his own death is imminent, he can no longer pretend to himself that he will never die. In this frame of mind, he finds himself talking to the buried bones of his parents. “I’m seventy-one, your boy is seventy-one,” he tells them. In his mind, he hears his mother reply: “Good. You lived.”

This little joke describes a devastating situation: the hero has lived long enough that no one—not even, in his imagination, his own mother—could say that fate has cheated him if he were to die. Some of Roth’s novels of the last decade have described working-class Jewish New Jersey of the 1940s and 1950s (The Plot Against America, Indignation), while others are set in the present day, where the children of the World War II era find themselves growing old (Everyman, Exit Ghost, and now The Humbling). The historical novels are punctuated by the untimely deaths of boys and young men: in war, in the case of Marcus Messner in Indignation (2008), and in anti-Semitic riots in the case of Seldon Wishnow in The Plot Against America (2004). more

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