- Exit Ghost
- Houghton Mifflin, 292 pp.
Zuckerman in Turmoil
Exit Ghost is the latest and, Philip Roth promises, the last of the nine novels starring his fictional alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman. As the novel begins, Zuckerman is visiting New York City for the first time in eleven years. Other than for surgery in Boston to remove a cancerous prostate, he has hardly been off his rural mountain road in the Berkshires all these years. He is mentally recuperated and determined to lead a normal life. Now he has driven the hundred and thirty miles to Manhattan to see a urologist who specializes in treating incontinence caused by prostate surgery.
“Not even when I was out of the encouraging environment of his office was I able to summon up an ounce of wariness to restrain my sense of rejuvenation… In the country, there was nothing tempting my hope…but when I came to New York, in only hours, New York did what it does for people—awakened the possibilities. Hope breaks out.”
Though Exit Ghost is weighed down rather heavily by a variety of distressing physical problems, as soon as an admiring young couple offer to swap their New York apartment for Zuckerman’s rural retreat, Roth’s prose returns to the high spirits readers will remember from his earlier fiction.
The publication of a new novel by Philip Roth (now numbering more than twenty) is always accompanied by a stir of anticipation. Though the notorious Roth voice is often manic and crude, we assume that coming from a writer who is intellectual and self-critical to the hilt, there must be some highfalutin purpose behind the roughhouse tactics, for him to know and us to divine. His exasperated cadences notwithstanding, Roth always had the knack of locating his fiction in common derangements. What made Portnoy’s Complaint a best-seller was not really the flamboyant vocabulary or the lurid sexual images, but the complaint itself, the encroachment of the Jewish family on the outlook and imagination of its vulnerable offspring.
One can almost understand why Roth often feels like a twisted character out of Kafka. Although he has had his share of praise and many literary awards, he longs for the good opinion of his most demanding critics. Yet Irving Howe, who was awesomely complete in discerning Roth’s faults, scarcely gives him credit for his considerable talents: the buoyant comedy of Portnoy’s Complaint, the confident strokes used to conjure up a writer close in accomplishment and manner to Bernard Malamud, the élan with which he wields his most potent fictional strategy (the accusatory monologue), and perhaps the most disarming trait of all, his full knowledge of his own limitations.
It is true that Roth habitually falls prey to spurts of comic aggression. He is especially angered by religious and intellectual confreres who want him to sustain a virtuous image of Jewry in his writing. “You pervert my intentions, then call me perverse!” Zuckerman shouts over the phone to Milton Appel, the critic whose harsh reconsideration of his work in a Jewish cultural monthly (not unlike an early article by Irving Howe in Commentary) has cut him to the quick. “You lay hold of my comedy with your ten-ton gravity and turn it into a travesty. My coarse, vindictive fantasies, your honorable, idealistic human concerns!”
Despite his wrathful defensive stance, Roth has a legitimate point. Not only is his fiction steeped in Jewish life, but much of it is sympathetic and many of his characters are likable. The generation of his parents is disappearing. Soon his books will be one of the few records of those close-knit, choleric, interfering, warm-blooded families, often seen, to be sure, through his baleful eye, but knockouts of authenticity nevertheless.
Exit Ghost is almost entirely free of Roth’s longtime concern with Jewish family life. It is instead centered on illness, fame, infatuation, and Zuckerman’s efforts to protect the reputation of his long-deceased literary master, E.I. Lonoff, from the efforts of a young careerist, Richard Kliman, who is writing a biography of Lonoff containing allegations of youthful incest with a half-sister.
It is the last contretemps that ties together the four characters, other than Zuckerman, who inhabit the book. The young couple, Billy Davidoff and Jamie Logan, who want to exchange their New York apartment for Zuckerman’s upstate home, turn out of be friends of Richard Kliman. Billy and Jamie are also aspiring writers. He is working on a novel and she has published her first story in The New Yorker. Jamie’s worshipful husband adds in his eulogy that Jamie graduated summa cum laude from Harvard and obviously regards her as the more brilliant of the two.
Richard Kliman also brings Zuckerman in touch with Amy Bellette, whom he met only once, when she was the youthful mistress of E.I. Lonoff and the young Zuckerman was visiting the older writer he revered. Kliman wants Zuckerman to help him on the biography, not only with his own impressions but even more urgently by persuading Amy to let him read the last half of Lonoff’s unpublished novel. Zuckerman refuses violently, accusing Kliman of invading Lonoff’s preciously guarded privacy, in the hope of using the scandal of incest to make a best-seller. When Kliman asks why Lonoff never gave interviews and tried to remain invisible, Zuckerman sums up the master in his reply. “Because he preferred the contemplative life to any other. Lonoff wrote. Lonoff taught….He made a modest income that sufficed. Order. Security. Stability. What more did he need?”
When he finally meets Amy Bellette, Zuckerman finds her old, poor, and suffering the effects of surgery for brain cancer, yet admirably loyal to her memory of Lonoff, now dead for forty years. She has had no other male companion since his death. She shows Zuckerman a long, well-phrased, unpublished letter to The New York Times, highly indignant about the state of contemporary literary journalism. At first she claims to have written the letter, then she insists that Lonoff dictated it to her. This puzzle is never solved, Zuckerman finds himself infected by Amy’s imaginary conversations with Lonoff, and imagines Lonoff saying “Look after her.” Which he does by giving her all the cash in his billfold and promising to send her monthly checks.
Exit Ghost ends on a desperately comic note. Roth has inserted an original playlet called He and She at various points in the novel, most of it a coy expression of Zuckerman’s and Jamie’s need to reveal their attraction to one another and to acquire some excitement from the process. Their effort, clumsy but genuine, goes as far as arranging to meet in his hotel room.
Before the planned rendezvous, they speak on the phone of their admiration for each other, but neither of them is comfortable. Their conversation sounds still, on Zuckerman’s part, like adolescent queries about Jamie’s early sexual experiences and her responses are equally flirtatious. While awaiting Jamie’s arrival, Zuckerman has an impulsive change of heart. The final words of the book are “Thus, with only a moment’s more insanity on his part—a moment of insane excitement—he throws everything into his bag…and sets out as fast as he can…She’s on her way and he leaves. Gone for good.”