Exit Ghost

Nathan Zuckerman's last act.

Print this page Print this page

In 1997, Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral, his soaring lament on the 1960s. It was the first installment of Roth's American trilogy, in which he dissected post-war America with penetrating intellect, pathos, and humor. He followed American Pastoral up quickly with I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000), both of which also won significant literary awards.

At the time, much was made of Roth's age. Nearing 70 when the last of these books was published, Roth--once both feted and reviled as the enfant terrible of American letters--was writing books of towering achievement at an age when many novelists find their artistic powers in decline. In his 60s, it seemed, Roth had been born anew.

On Death and Dying

Now 74, Roth gives us Exit Ghost, itself the third in a trilogy of recent books, these examining not a particular moment in history, but a specific moment in life: the end.

The death trilogy began with The Dying Animal (2001) and Everyman (2006) and concludes with Exit Ghost. In the last, Roth resurrects Nathan Zuckerman, his literary alter-ego of eight previous novels (including the American trilogy), in order to, if not quite kill him off, urge him close to the precipice.

Set in New York City, Exit Ghost begins a few days before the 2004 presidential elections, when Zuckerman--a well-known novelist who for more than a decade has lived a solitary existence in the Berkshires--returns to Manhattan for a procedure he hopes will improve the incontinence that has dogged him since prostate cancer surgery several years earlier. Zuckerman's memory is going, too, and he is reduced to keeping a log of conversations and commitments in a marble notebook like the ones children use in grade school.

Haunted by the Past

In short order, Zuckerman spots Amy Bellette (a central character in the first Zuckerman book, The Ghost Writer), who had so entranced him five decades earlier during an evening spent at the home of Zuckerman's mentor, the renowned author E.I. Lonoff. Now Bellette, who in the intervening years had been Lonoff's mistress, is dying of brain cancer.

On a whim, Zuckerman agrees to swap houses for a year with Billy and Jamie, a young writer couple looking to escape Manhattan after 9/11. Zuckerman is quickly smitten with the beautiful Jamie--blue-blooded scion of Texas oil money--and, deep in the throes of a sexual reawakening, he hopes to woo her away from her sweet and devoted husband.

As it turns out, Jamie's college sweetheart, Robert Kliman, is writing a biography of the long-dead Lonoff.

Handsome, self-assured and young, Kliman immediately raises Zuckerman's hackles. He is the competition: both for the girl and (because of his youthful virility) for life itself. He is a "not yet" to Zuckerman's "no longer." Zuckerman, along with the dying Bellette, sets about thwarting Kliman's literary aspirations.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Chanan Tigay

Chanan Tigay is an award-winning journalist who has written for Newsweek, Agence France-Presse, United Press International, and the Jerusalem Report, among other publications.