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Friday, May 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Philip Roth's "Everyman" is thin stuff

Seattle Times book critic

"Everyman"
by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 182 pp., $24

The title character in Philip Roth's new novel is a fickle, feckless, horny, self-pitying cipher ... which may be exactly what Roth intended him to be.

But that doesn't mean the novel works.

Taking its inspiration from the medieval morality play of the same name, "Everyman" is a striking contrast to "The Plot Against America," Roth's boldly imagined 2004 alternative history/family saga.

Small in scale and narrow in its focus, it portrays a thrice-divorced father who has a daughter still loyal to him (from his second marriage) and two sons who bitterly resent him (from his first marriage). The book opens with his funeral, then flashes back to review his life.

Roth's unnamed Everyman may be a Jewish New Yorker, but his story, with its medieval origins, is strikingly Catholic in character. The arc of the medieval play — in which Death comes calling for a flawed, hapless, ordinary fellow, prompting him to reassess his life — is closely followed by Roth. Indeed, a couplet from the prologue to the play — "Ye think sin in the beginning full sweet, / Which in the end causeth the soul to weep" — sums up the trajectory Roth's protagonist goes through.

The play, of course, was a morality lesson, not a psychological study. The surprise here — and the problem — is that Roth shows equally little interest in presenting us with three-dimensional characters. What we get instead are shallow caricatures, starting with the title character himself.

A would-be artist, Roth's Everyman went into the advertising business to please his parents, and he has regretted it ever since. In marriage, he has been just as wrongfooted, hooking up first with a shrew whom he seems always to have detested, then with a saint he cruelly betrayed, and finally with a bubbleheaded Danish model half his age who "carried everything erotic to the limit."

The Danish model is the culmination of on-the-job sexual high jinks he started indulging in when he was pushing 50. This is an Everyman who has quickie sex with his 19-year-old secretary on his office floor during office hours.

He's furious that his sons hold this sort of behavior against him — but, gee, they have a point, don't they? Readers too may wonder what Roth's aim is in making his supposedly "average" protagonist so unusually willful and careless in his carnal conduct.

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Along with his moral flaws, Roth's Everyman is a sickly type. By the time he reaches his 60s, he's jealously envious of his older brother's good health, thus poisoning that relationship. He has a "stoical maxim" that he supposedly lives by: "There's no remaking reality," ... "Just take it as it comes. Hold your ground and take it as it comes."

Yet there's little to suggest he puts this belief into practice. True, his health problems are real — so much so that stretches of "Everyman" read less like a novel than a medical case history. It's also true that Roth is going for a big protest against "the inevitable onslaught that is the end of life." But for that "onslaught" to have any dramatic effect, Everyman's life would need to be populated by something other than stick figures.

Roth does get certain moments right: a resentful son's anger-strangled wave of grief at his father's graveside; a serene exchange, late in the book, between Everyman and a gravedigger about the practice of the latter's trade.

Still, nothing here can help the novel transcend its central flaw: the fact that its characters never take on more than a cartoonish weight.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998, and has also published four novels.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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