Everyman by Philip Roth is a short but satisfying chronicle of a life lived unapologetically. The majority of the novel, or perhaps it’s better classified as a novella, revolves around the ‘golden’ years of a man who has dealt with the specter of death through a series of hospitalizations. The beauty of Everyman is the engrossing delivery of such ordinary material. Roth is a gifted storyteller, and using his nameless character, he allows readers to empathize and relate to this “everyman.”
Everyman is about death, lust, love, family, frailty and human nature. These aren’t new themes for Roth or for the world at large. What is different is the pace and structure that Roth builds into Everyman. There isn’t a deeply rich exploration of family or vivid descriptions of modern America. Everyman starts out with the main character’s funeral. So the rest of the story unfolds almost like a Six Feet Under type of eulogy.
To me, it feels like an extended version of the ‘my life flashed before my eyes’ type of scenario. In those harrowing moments before death you relive your life in flashes, a dreamlike meta state that has no time boundaries. So, we do visit the hero in his youth and learn about his father. We see the bonding moments he’s had with his brother, how he met and fell in love with his wife and his affairs and human failings. They’re just vivid snapshots, life’s highlights, that have the most meaning and impact.
Roth creates a great amount of empathy for both the main character and those with which he interacts. It’s a literary feat that he’s able to create a clear portrait with such a brevity of words. Using the everyman device, he’s able to connect with the reader quickly and pinpoint those uncomfortable and messy areas of life that we all encounter. This is Roth at his finest, revealing the intricacies of relationships and the heartfelt turmoil that is part of everyday life.
The main character is not the quintessential everyman, since he’s colored with Roth’s unique perspective. In particular, the introspective ability to analyze and to forgive poor decisions, chalking them up to being human. There are no apologies, only the tacit knowledge that he’s screwed up from time to time, that it wasn’t optimal, but it was what happened and that … is that.
Everyman is also interesting as it pertains to longevity and medicine. Living longer due to medical advances is a double-edged sword in many respects. You get more time to experience the world and people around you, but what happens when some of those people die and parts of the world aren’t available to you anymore? Is longevity for it’s own sake worthwhile? I find these themes increasingly relevant as I (and my peers) get older.
Philip Roth has once again demonstrated why he’s one of America’s best modern writers.