Exit Ghost
Philip Roth
(Houghton Mifflin)
Exit Ghost is an extended attack on those scholars and biographers who feed off the bodies and works of novelists. That's part of the story.

The other part comes to us in the form of an awkward question: How does seventy-one year-old man seduce a married thirty-year-old woman? Better said: How does an aged writer who is impotent (and incontinent; cancer of the prostate; "a man in diapers") get into the pants of a lovely sophisticated lady from Harvard who is quite content with her thirty-year-old husband, a woman who casually wears a "wide-necked thousand-buck cardigan sweater hanging loose over a low-cut camisole?"

Even though this is Philip Roth and not Rudyard Kipling, this might well be characterized as another Jungle Book. Because these two themes get enmeshed, vines in Amazonia, running into at least twenty other themes and into each other, veering off, coming back, stuck and unstuck, twisting on into each other. There's young love, old love, Jews, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, George Bush the elder, George Bush the younger, George Plimpton alive, George Plimpton dead ... and the prevalence of cell phones: "I remembered a New York when the only people walking up Broadway seemingly talking to themselves were crazy."

    What had happened in these ten years for suddenly to be so much to say --- so much so pressing that it couldn't wait to be said?

Besides cell phones and madness, there are riffs on aging, cancer of the brain, famous Jewish writers, famous Jewish writers in seclusion, seclusion itself, the erosion of memory, the scandal of incest, and "the senile solution." Which is? "Forget it!"

If this isn't the full monty, we have urologists and urologists nurses: "'And if a third procedure doesn't work?' I asked. 'Oh, that's a long way off, Mr. Zuckerman. Let's just take one step at a time. Don't lose heart. This is not going to come to nothing.'"

    As if incontinence weren't indignity enough, one had then to be addressed like a churlish eight-year-old balking at taking his cod-liver oil. But that's how it goes when an elderly patient refuses to resign himself to the inevitable travails and totter politely toward the grave: doctors and nurses have a child on their hands who must be soothed into soldiering on in behalf of his own lost cause.

§     §     §

The narrator in all this is Nathan Zuckerman, a famous novelist, who may or may not be Roth. He is the one who falls foolishly in love with the aforementioned lovely WASP, Jamie, who looks all too elegant in her cardigan sweater. During this dance, the reader is faced with a puzzle. Is Roth (as Zuckerman) telling us a secret about himself, he being a writer who doesn't want anyone feeding off his secrets --- "the armored layers of suspicion ... the fort I'd constructed against the intruders drawn to my work?"

Is Exit Ghost thus a novel about how one should never dig into the secrets of a novelist named Lonoff, or Zuckerman, or perhaps Roth ... even though one of them may be exposing some most intimate secrets here. Has Roth fallen in love with lovely Harvard graduates? Does he feud with the many tell-all "scholars" nipping at his heels? Does he wear diapers? If so, how often does he change them?

Roth, or Zuckerman, or the author --- whoever that may be --- tells us, repeatedly that the sole thing of value is the story as written, not the author behind it. Yet we can't help asking: is Roth revealing some secret of yet another famous old writer, one who may or may not be I. B. Singer? Who is this guy or who are these guys, anyway? Are they all doppelgängers? Should we care?

§     §     §

While I was being dragged onward if not upward with this one, I was trying to figure out what makes Roth Roth. Is it the pricks and kicks, the surprise interstices? Zuckerman to Jamie and husband Billy on elections: "I've served my tour as exasperated liberal and indignant citizen." When debating whether to follow up on his lust for Jamie, and considering the impotence caused by his cancer, Zuckerman "yielded immediately to the ruthlessness of a desperate infatuation guaranteed to be anything but harmless to 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."

    The once rigid instrument of procreation was not like the end of a pipe you see sticking out of a field somewhere, a meaningless piece of pipe that spurts and gushes intermittently, spitting forth water to no end, until a day arrives when somebody remembers to give the valve the extra turn that shuts the damn sluice down.

Perhaps the key, or, better, the fun in a Roth novel are the asides ... like the shot here of George Plimpton's funeral, told by Richard Kliman, a regular noise-box. Zuckerman finds quickly that he cannot abide Kliman. He thinks, "The Jews can't stop making these. Eddie Cantor. Jerry Lewis. Abbie Hoffman. Lenny Bruce ... the last of the agitators and affronters." To punish him, Zuckerman sits close to Kliman in an intimate hot cafe, not having changed his diapers for the last thirty hours.

Despite the pungency of the moment, and the author's distaste, Kliman's oration on Plimpton's funeral could be compared to Enobarbus' rant about Cleopatra's barge. There is a superb picture of Norman Mailer, on his two canes, struggling up the stairs, into the pulpit, to give his funeral oration. He "looks down the length of the nave and out to Amsterdam Avenue and across the U. S. to the Pacific. Reminds me of Father Mapple in Moby-Dick."

He tells of his recent friendship with George Plimpton and his wife. This is no longer

    Mailer in quest of a quarrel [but] as a husband in praise of coupledom. Fundamentalist creeps, you have met your match.

At times like this, Roth is a perfect joy to read, but he is not perfect. For some reason we cannot fathom he chooses to turn a fair portion of Exit Ghost into a He/She dialogue. It is a somewhat stiff imagined back-and-forth between Zuckerman and his would-be light of love, Jamie. He wants her; she is flattered, but not interested. Next to the club sandwich of Exit Ghost, this is pure corned-beef. Hold the pickle.

--- L. W. Milam
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