‘Old age isn’t a battle, it is a massacre.‘
Roth’s misogyny is not news, neither is his inability to ‘keep it in his pants’ throughout his marriages. He was also one hell of a writer about the human condition, or perhaps that is, the condition of a certain type of male. There is often a thinly-veiled version of himself as one of the main protagonists in his books: professional / semi-professional man of a certain age, usually unhappily married or recently divorced, irresistible to younger women – who are often prone beneath him, within pages of meeting him – and always unhappy with his lot in life.
Everyman ticks all of these boxes and is also a brilliantly economical telling of the life of this man who’s funeral we are at in the opening pages of the novel, while the rest of the book (around 170 pages), is spent telling us how he got there. It is almost a book presented as a Mobius Strip.
But there is more going on here, Everyman is also the title of a 15th C morality play in which an unprepared sinner is told by Death of his imminent judgement day, and tries to recollect his own deeds to see whether they will count for him or against him. In Roth’s novel, once a couple of mourners have said a few words at the graveside – a broken-down Jewish cemetery beside the turnpike – the unnamed ‘everyman’ begins to assemble his defence, in a manner of speaking. Episodes from his life are recounted, right back to being a young boy helping out in his dad’s jewellery store alongside his brother Howie, fascinated by the intricate workings of watches, and he wonders at his father’s fidelity both to his wife and to the shop which he ran, selling engagement and wedding rings, and watches to three generations of the people of the neighbourhood. In these reminiscences he revisits themes from other novels, that of the respect for the craftsman, the artisan, the skills and dedication that go into a lifetime’s work, and he laments the decline of this type of work, how it has been lost to peoples and neighbourhoods.
He warmly remembers how he fell in love with each of his wives, just as he acknowledges that his lust broke up his marriages and ruined his relationship with his two sons from his first marriage. But he also argues that this lust was the very fire that kept him alive, that made life worth living, saying not to have acted on his lust would have meant him “living deranged half the time.” Alongside this, he spends a good deal of time lamenting his ill-health which seems to have accompanied him for most of his adult life, comparing it with the robust athleticism of Howie.
In the end he accepts and explains, “I am 71. This is the man I have made.” Arguing that his very vulnerabilities and weaknesses make him human and this is his best defence. At the graveside his daughter finishes her few words with, “Well, this is how it turns out. There’s nothing more we can do, Dad.” And remembers one of her father’s own maxims, “Just take it as it comes. Hold your ground and take it as it comes.”
In the closing pages, the protagonist visits the graveyard he will be interred in and comes across an old grave-digger who has been doing the job for 34 years. They fall into a conversation about the mechanics, the ‘art’ of grave-digging, it is a gentle, very precise conversation in which the everyman learns about one last piece of artisanship and the pride the worker takes in his craft. He finds out that this grave-digger dug the graves of his parents many years ago and thanks him for the care with which he did it.