It would be easy to focus on just where the book goes wrong. The old man’s desire for the young woman is nothing more than an old man’s desire to recapture something of his youth. The book has almost nothing of interest to say about this unlikely romance between a 71-year-old impotent man with bladder problems, and the headstrong 30-year-old beauty who consents to his company. As for the discussion of aging, Roth wrote much better on that topic in Everyman. In Exit Ghost, the conclusions come as no surprise: that we all lose the battle against time, that the young replace the old, etc.
While Roth sheds little that is new or interesting on love and aging, when he talks about literature he is outstanding. His characters mount an extraordinary defense of literature and authors. From a letter by Amy Bellette to The New York Times:
“Hemingway’s early stories are set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, so your cultural journalist goes to the Upper Peninsula and finds out the names of the locals who are said to have been models for the characters in the early stories. Surprise of surprises, they or their descendants feel badly served by Ernest Hemingway. These feelings, unwarranted or childish or downright imaginary as they may be, are taken more seriously than the fiction… The integrity of the journalist is never questioned — only the integrity of the writer. The writer works alone for years on end, stakes his or her everything on the writing, pores over every sentence sixty-two times, and yet is without any sort of overriding literary consciousness, understanding, or goal. Everything the writer builds, meticulously, phrase by phrase and detail by detail, is a ruse and a lie. The writer is without literary motive. Any interest in depicting reality is nil. The writer’s guiding motives are always personal and generally low.
“And this knowledge comes as a comfort, for it turns out that not only are these writers not superior to the rest of us, as they pretend to be — they are worse than the rest of us. Those terrible geniuses!”
Or a long discourse on George Plimpton’s funeral delivered by the young upstart Kilman:
“Then Norman Mailer. Overwhelming. I’d never seen Norman Mailer off the screen before. Guy’s eighty now, both knees shot, walks with two canes… Climbs this tall pulpit all by himself. Everybody pulling for him step by step. The conquistador is here and the high drama begins. The Twilight of the Gods. He surveys the assemblage. Looks down the length of the nave and out to Amsterdam Avenue and across the U.S. to the Pacific. Reminds me of Father Maple in Moby-Dick. I expected him to begin “Shipmates!” and preach upon the lesson Jonah teaches. But no, he too speaks very simply about George… Well, it’s been a long time coming, America, but there on the pulpit is Norman Mailer speaking as a husband in praise of coupledom. Fundamentalist creeps, you have met your match.”
For all the book’s flaws, and my own cynicism, I almost didn’t make it to the discussion of Plimpton’s funeral, and that would have been a shame because it was easily worth the price of the hardcover. There were so many moments I almost stopped reading — the cheap entrances and exits, the interesting conversations suddenly ended by unexpected visitors, the convenient coincidences, and the gimmicky interspersing of dramatic scenes written by Zuckerman filled with softball leading dialogue like “Why did you chose this young man to marry?”
I want to believe that writers get better as they get older, like Leonard Michaels writing the Nachman stories in his final years. I latch on to examples like Norman Mailer, publishing The Executioner’s Song when he was 56, easily eclipsing his breakout best-seller, The Naked and the Dead, which he published when he was 24. I look up to Tobias Wolff, whose novel Old School, written when he was in his late 50s, stands proudly among his finest work. Roth gave hope for much longer than is reasonable to expect, publishing what many consider his best book, The Plot Against America, at the age of 71, the same as Zuckerman in Exit Ghost.
There’s much wrong with Exit Ghost. Roth knows that, which is why he invites the comparison with Faulkner, allowing a lesser work to “reach the public as it was and yield whatever satisfactions it could.” But when I was immersed in the book’s finer moments, I thought, Maybe that’s okay. Maybe the glimmering highlights are enough.
EXIT GHOST | By PHILIP ROTH | Houghton Mifflin | 304 pages | $26 hardcover
Stephen Elliott is the author of six books, including the novel Happy Baby and the erotica collection My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up.