Nathan Zuckerman is back, and, at 71 he’s in sad shape: incontinent, impotent, and prone to memory losses. But some things never change: he’s still got an eye for the ladies, the younger the better, even though any real chance of seduction is gone.
Zuckerman, one of Philip Roth’s recurring protagonists, is invariably described as the novelist’s alter ego, so there’s an especially poignant edge to Roth’s account of Zuckerman’s declining powers. In Exit Ghost, the aging novelist has trotted out his most enduring character like an ailing thoroughbred for one final turn around the track.
As the novel begins, it is 2004—three years after 9/11. Zuckerman has just driven to New York from his rural Massachusetts retreat, where, during 11 mostly solitary years, he had “ceased to inhabit not just the great world but the present moment.” Back in the city only for a medical procedure to alleviate his incontinence, he is quickly accosted by unfinished business and stirring new temptations.
Exit Ghost serves as an epilogue to The Ghost Writer, Roth's 1979 tale of an overnight visit that a worshipful 23-year-old Zuckerman pays to the reclusive writer E.I. Lonoff. During the visit, Lonoff’s long-suffering wife, Hope, walks out and leaves him to a charming young woman, Amy Bellette, who portrays herself as the mysteriously surviving diarist Anne Frank. Now, nearly a half-century later, Zuckerman encounters Bellette by chance in the hospital. A frail woman plagued by brain cancer and still obsessed with the long-dead Lonoff, she is yet another reminder of encroaching senescence.
But in Manhattan, it turns out, life cannot be denied. After answering an ad about a housing swap, Zuckerman encounters Jamie Logan, a 30-year-old married woman whom he first met when she was a student, and her ex- and perhaps current lover, Richard Kliman. Kliman is also Lonoff’s would-be biographer, eager to reveal the Great Man’s dark (and somewhat improbable) secret to an indifferent public. “Precipitously stepping into a new future, I had retreated unwittingly into the past,” says Zuckerman, as he steels himself for one last fight.
If Exit Ghost is not Roth’s richest fiction, he remains a vivid, compelling writer, evoking in a few short pages Zuckerman’s pitifully reduced state and his longing for a final sweet burst of life. But even as our interest in the plot’s complexities mounts, Roth teases us with interpolated excerpts from Zuckerman’s play, He and She, a sexually charged dialogue between a Zuckerman figure bent on seduction and a Jamie character intrigued by his curiosity and fame. But the meta-drama is mainly a distraction from the “real” fiction of Exit Ghost—a wish-fulfillment fantasy that is ultimately distancing.
One of the most oddly memorable passages in Exit Ghost is a tribute to the late George Plimpton, the participatory journalist and Paris Review editor whose rich life throws into high relief Zuckerman’s abundant failures. Kliman, a grasping caricature of Zuckerman’s younger self, describes the older man’s legacy in these contemptuous terms: “Let the repellent in! That’s your achievement, Mr. Zuckerman.” That’s Roth, sardonically posing in fiction’s fun-house mirror, twitting both himself and his critics.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia.