Life's a _____, and then you die
Taking the pulse of Philip Roth's 'Everyman'
By Todd Leopold
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(CNN) -- Funny, what you take for granted.
This weekend begins the summer movie season. Tom Cruise stars in "Mission: Impossible III," a slam-bang action picture full of explosions and derring-do, which -- though it's directed and co-written by J.J. Abrams, the genius behind "Lost" and "Alias" -- isn't meant to last in your mind any longer than it takes you to digest your popcorn.
A lot of summer movies are like that, high-gloss entertainments that do their job for two hours in a nice, air-conditioned theater. At their best, they're practically out-of-body experiences: You're sucked into the screen, high on adrenaline, barely aware of your existence. You're the audience of Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels," one of the best movies about movies ever made.
You need that break, that rush, that heightened emotion of escape. We all do.
But when you leave, you're back in your life, with its attendant pains and joys and sweat and long stretches of boredom. The clock doesn't stop ticking. The human machine only has so much time.
Sooner or later, the machine will break down. Sooner or later, the machine will stop.
In Philip Roth's "Everyman," the lead character lives what would be, to many, an enviable life. But -- in between his job and his family and his philandering and his dreams -- he thinks about the end, about his regrets. He thinks about the green grass on the other side of the fence. He thinks about release. He thinks about escape.
Eye on Entertainment ponders the meaning of it all.
"Everyman" (Houghton Mifflin) gets its title from a morality play that first appeared about 1500. In that work, Death comes for the main character, Everyman, who -- like all humans -- is a sinner.
Everyman, denied more time by Death, is allowed a companion on his journey. But everybody he asks -- Cousin, Fellowship, Goods and others -- turns him down. In the end, only Good Deeds -- strengthened by Everyman's penance -- accompanies Everyman to Death and, presumably, the afterlife.
Roth's "Everyman" isn't even granted that.
His main character, never named, is a successful advertising man, good at his job and certainly financially comfortable. But unhappiness gnaws at him like a disease. He cheats on one wife, then another; his sons turn their backs; he's jealous of his older, even more successful and much more contented brother.
And his body, the weak flesh, fails and fails him again -- betrays him, to his mind. He survives peritonitis and a bypass and finally reaches a point, in his 60s, when "eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story."
Or so he believes. As Bob Dylan once sang, "He not busy being born is busy dying." Roth's Everyman is so busy dying he never seems to start living -- all the joys in his life (particularly his loving daughter, perhaps his own "Good Deed") forgotten in the face of "bodily decay."
Grim stuff, it would seem.
But not in the hands of Roth, one of the most brilliant writers the United States has ever produced. (Why does this man not have a Nobel Prize?)
"Everyman" is a simple story, simply told, but packing a profound punch. Roth's sentences are matter-of-fact, one leading to the next like the mile markers on a family car trip, which creep into dread and darkness and a shocking wonder.
With the exception of The New York Times' prickly Michiko Kakutani, critics have been -- mostly -- full of praise.
"Roth has never been more in earnest, but still demonstrating at the turn of every phrase, as he looks hard at what is to come, that there is wonderfully defiant life in him yet," wrote Tim Adams in London's Observer.
Roth's books have often been considered autobiographical -- a view Roth has played with in works such as "The Counterlife" -- but, the author says, that's not the case with "Everyman."
"This book came out of what was all around me, which was something I never expected -- that my friends would die," Roth said, according to United Press International.
Wherever it comes from, it's another triumph.
"Everyman" comes out Tuesday.
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