We gave it a B+
Lots of modern novelists flirt with fictional alter egos — Kurt Vonnegut named his Kilgore Trout, John Updike’s was called Henry Bech — but Philip Roth is having an ongoing relationship with his. Nathan Zuckerman has appeared in Roth’s writing for nearly 30 years, in works like The Anatomy Lesson, American Pastoral, and The Human Stain. Now, with this ninth Zuckerman book, Exit Ghost, the saga finally seems to be heading toward an end. In these pages, the tragicomic character is not looking well at all.
In his early 70s, with his memory failing (along with other body parts), Zuckerman is forced to end an 11-year reclusion in a Berkshires farmhouse and return to Manhattan for medical treatment. Like Rip Van Winkle waking from his slumber, he blinks in amazement at how the city of his youth has changed. ”I couldn’t have felt any more out of it…had I turned up on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 54th with Rip’s rusty gun in my hand and his ancient clothes on my back,” he observes. But the ubiquity of cell phones and the shrinking of women’s T-shirts aren’t the only surprises for Zuckerman. In the elevator of his urologist’s office, he spots a familiar-looking elderly woman with a half-shaved head from a recent brain tumor operation. ”I did indeed know her,” he says, eventually placing the face. ”Her name was Amy Bellette. I’d met her only once. I’d never forgotten her.”
That ”once,” of course, was in The Ghost Writer, the 1979 novel in which Roth formally introduced Zuckerman as an up-and-coming young author (who imagines a fetching European girl named Amy as a grown-up Anne Frank). Other characters from The Ghost Writer resurface as well, such as Nathan’s long-dead Bernard Malamud-like mentor, a literary force so powerful he’s still dictating criticism from the grave. You don’t have to be the late E.I. Lonoff to see that Roth is bringing Zuckerman full circle, ending his story where it began. But don’t expect closure quite yet. Exit Ghost stops just when it starts to get interesting, leaving plenty of plot points hanging for a sequel. Will Zuckerman succeed in preventing a sleazy journalist from staining Lonoff’s legacy with a salacious biography? Will the experimental collagen-in-the-prostate injections restore the author’s dignity (not to mention his sex life)? Will his leaky memory hold long enough for him to finish telling his own great tale?
Zuckerman may be losing it, but Roth is as lucid as ever. He’s set up the first part of a masterful finale for his enduring creation, laying out the beginning of the end of Nathan Zuckerman. But it’s going to take one more novel to finish him off. If we’re lucky, maybe two. B+