The Humbling
Philip Roth
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Simon Axler is a top-drawer actor in New York who, suddenly, at age sixty-five, drops his cookies. "He'd lost his magic. No more Falstaff and Peer Gynt and Vanya."

To avoid shooting himself he retreats to a rich-people brain-cure joint upstate where he does crayon therapy and takes pills and befriends another would-be suicide by the name of Sybil.

But no sooner is he out than he ends up in the arms of Pegeen Mike Stapleford, daughter of some old theatre friends. She's had a tumultuous love life ... with women. But now, twenty-five years younger than Simon, she wants to do the straight love thing: Simon Pure with Simon Axler.

Pegeen is thus a virgin --- in the technical sense of the word --- but she learns quickly, even begins to teach Simon a few tricks, too.

§     §     §

It's hard not to be fond of Roth, especially this and the other recent novels, a series of bite-sized, jewel-like apparitions. Humbling weighs in at a mere 144 pages. Typical late Roth: an old guy, putting up with the indignities of old age ... bad heart, enlarged prostate, tired knees, bad back, forgetfuness --- the usual suspects. And then comes Pegeen.

She is impossibly wonderful. We all fall for her. Axler buys her fine clothes (we'd do the same): "five thousand dollars' worth of skirts, blouses, belts, jackets, shoes, and sweaters."

She faithfully reports to us the long conversations she's having with mom and pop, back there in the middle west. They even come to town to talk her out of moving in with this old man who'll "begin to have health problems such as the elderly have, and maybe things even worse, and you're going to be the person responsible for his care."

Then there's the loony-bin trip. Mother says, "It's no small thing for someone to commit himself to a psychiatric hospital and then be there for however long or short a period it was." Dad says, "We all have serious problems but we don't all end up in psychiatric hospitals."

Pegeen offers exquisitely balanced reports to Axler: elegant, logical speeches, which make us think, "What a great performance." And then we think ... wait a minute: we thought he was the actor.

Well, he may be, but he's got a co-star now. And if he was dotty and depressed before, just wait until Pegeen delivers the coup de main, the night of the dildo. Eh? A bright green number resting uneasily somewhere between Axler and Pegeen and a 40ish lady antique-dealer who they've picked up in a bar. Just before they all go home together, the bartender leans over and asks Pegeen, "Are you an actress?" She says, "Off and on." Ah so.

Then the usual Rothian frolic ... but then the bombs go off, the characters shape-shift all around us. This is Axler dramatically confronting a woman who he later catches peeping in his window:

    "It's you who phoned last night."

    "I'm not completely in charge of myself," she replied.

    "You're obsessed, so you phone, you're obsessed, so you stalk. You're a very attractive woman nonetheless."

    "I've never been told that before by a man with a gun."

    "I don't know why she left you for me," he said.

    "Oh, don't you?"

    "You look like a red-haired Valkyrie and I'm an old man."

    "An old man who's a star, Mr. Axler. Don't pretend to be no one."

    "Would you like to come inside?" he asked.

    "Why? Do you want to try to seduce me too? Do you make a specialty of retooling lesbians?"

    "Madam, it isn't I who was the Peeping Tom. It isn't I who phoned her parents in Michigan at midnight. It isn't I who phoned 'Mr. Famous' last night. You needn't take the accusatory tone so quickly."

    "I'm not myself."

Not too long after, Pegeen announces to us all that she's moving out, leaving poor Axler not only bewildered, but miserably, ragingly, self-hating, suicidially, bleakly, screechingly alone. Why?

Well, in every Roth novel, we have to run into Banquo's ghost, shaking his gory locks. In Exit Ghost, it was a lovely WASP, the one Zuckerman falls in love with. In Portnoy's Complaint, it was Portnoy himself, discovering himself (that lightbulb in the bathroom!)

In Goodbye, Columbus, it was --- mercy me! --- an "Intrauterine Device." (Ah, the 50's; as our reviewer wrote of the Library of America's reissue of Goodbye, Columbus,

    It is the first novel that we've read about a summertime romance that features (1) a young man (2) a young woman (3) a summertime in Newark and (4) a distinctive eminence gris --- a diaphragm: The latter becomes a novelistic pièce de résistance.)

In The Humbling, the spook turns out to be a startling lesbian who entrances us all --- so verbal, so smart, so beguiling --- until she disappears, taking her peagreen instruments with her.

--- Lolita Lark
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