Oh, how the mighty Philip Roth protagonist has fallen. Alex Portnoy, the whining sexual hound of Portnoy's Complaint; Mickey Sabbath, the devious puppeteer and love hound in Sabbath's Theater; Seymour Levov, the stolid, wounded American icon at the heart of American Pastoral--whatever their psychological issues, these men were symbols of virility and the commanding spirit of the Jewish-American male. What a shock, then, to revisit the character of Nathan Zuckerman--Roth's oft-used literary hero--in Exit Ghost as a man "bearing between his legs a spigot of wrinkled flesh where once he'd had the fully functioning sexual organ, complete with bladder sphincter control, of a robust adult male."
As in Roth's previously brief novel Everyman, the ravages of time are catching up to the once-invincible heroes of Roth's universe. Rendered impotent and incontinent by surgery on a cancerous prostate, Zuckerman returns to New York after 11 years of a self-imposed mountain exile for a minor operation to hopefully restore bladder control. On a whim, he answers an add in the New York Review of Books for a house swap--Zuckerman's transcendental sanctuary for the West 71st Street apartment of Jaime Logan and Billy Davidoff, a young writing couple--the intended goal being Zuckerman's reclamation of the post-Sept. 11 world, with all its political idiosyncrasies (the novel is set during the 2004 presidential election).
Roth's protagonist develops an infatuation for the young Jaime Logan that consumes nearly half the novel in a series of protracted dialogues that Zuckerman writes in his hotel room. It remains unclear whether these long-winded dialogues are actual transcripts of conversations or whether they are merely formed from the desperate mind of a man craving unreachable youth. What is clear is that they are trumped by the novel's second narrative, in which Zuckerman defends the reputation of his hallowed literary inspiration, E.I. Lonoff, from the savage intentions of a literary biographer eager to expose one of Lonoff's long-buried secrets.
You can't help but marvel at the way Roth, one of this country's literary treasures, makes devastation so readable. With this novel, Everyman, and 2001's The Dying Animal, Roth lays bare the uncomfortable reality of mortality as he used to lay bare sexuality. Scenes of Zuckerman stealing away into the men's room to change his incontinence pads or the sight of Lonoff's second wife, Amy Bellette, with her head shaved and scarred from a recent brain-cancer operation counteract the lust for life Zuckerman tries to reclaim. Almost 40 years of uninterrupted vitality, time finally has caught up with Nathan Zuckerman; all that remains, in the words of one character, is "the pain of being present in the present moment."