Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

by Ted Gioia

Over the course of three decades and nine books, Philip
Roth has relied upon his most famous character, novelist
and alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, to give impetus and
vitality to a series of memorable stories. Now in his latest
Exit Ghost, Roth offers what he claims will be the final
chapter in the Zuckerman saga. In the process, he revisits
many of the same characters and themes that figured in his
first Zuckerman novel,
The Ghost Writer, from 1979.

Most authors might have given up on Zuckerman a decade
ago. He was sixty years old at the time, and living in a remote cabin,
isolated from friends, family and even the daily news. As a result of prostate
cancer, he was impotent and incontinent, forced to wear a diaper. No
producer would build a film or TV series around such an unpromising
protagonist, whose situation makes him distinctly unsuited for heroism,
romance or almost anything else, for that matter.

Yet Roth defied these limitations, and in
American Pastoral and The Human
, crafted two of the finest novels of recent times. In those works, we
encounter Roth at his best, probing psyches under stress, as they navigate
through moral dilemmas and the collapse of personal relationships,
biographies intertwined with the tumult of contemporary historical events.
But to achieve these grand effects, Roth pushed Zuckerman to the
background of the stories. He was narrator, but not the main character, and
his debilitated condition almost enhanced his status as the disinterested

Now in
Exit Ghost, Roth puts Zuckerman back on center stage. In a trip to
New York to undergo an experimental treatment to alleviate his
incontinence, the aging author finds himself entangled in a series of
unexpected dramas that test his fortitude and re-ignite the passions of his
younger days. A chance encounter with Amy Bellette (a character who also
figures in
The Ghost Writer) is dismaying, as he finds the young lady who
had charmed him decades before is now an old woman suffering from
terminal cancer. An arrogant young scholar who is writing a scandalous
biography of Bellette’s former companion E. I. Lonoff, latches on to
Zuckerman as a potential source, taking advantage of the older author’s
memory lapses and weakened condition to manipulate him.

Against this backdrop, Zuckerman meets and becomes infatuated with a
young woman and aspiring writer, Jamie Logan. This is an unpromising affair
from almost any angle. Logan is shallow and self-centered, married and four
decades younger than Zuckerman, and he is incapable of consummating
any relationship. Yet Zuckerman cannot resist the temptation to pursue
Logan, although he tries, as best he can, to sublimate his drives into the
fantasy of a play he writes with the two of them as characters.

The title
Exit Ghost is also a stage direction from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and
in honor of that drama, Roth offers us this anguished “play within a play”
which enacts the courtship of the wounded Zuckerman and the haughty
Logan. In these imaginary encounters, Roth explores the bitterness and
despair of his alter ego as all his dreams of a revitalized life in New York are
exposed as baseless illusions.

The brutal honesty of
Exit Ghost makes for compelling reading. But Roth’s
writing here often falls short of his best work. When he offers the reader a
lengthy passage comparing Zuckerman’s return to New York to Rip Van
Winkle waking from his sleep, one is surprised to see one of our finest living
authors relying on such a tired simile, worthy of a high school creative
writing student. Other passages also fail to ring true. When Zuckerman
launches into an angry rant on Lonoff’s biographer, the illusion of fiction is
destroyed – the reader sees this diatribe as Roth settling scores with his
current and future chroniclers.

As with his previous Zuckerman books, Roth tries to incorporate current
events into his narrative. In this instance, he has Zuckerman’s trip to New
York coincide with the culmination of the election battle between Bush and
Kerry for control of the White House, and he also tries to draw on the
aftermath of 9-11 during the course of the story. But Roth does not
integrate these successfully into his book – not the way he brought the
Vietnam protests into the heart of
American Pastoral, for example. Indeed,
some of the best written passages in
Exit Ghost (most notably a long
section on the life and death of George Plimpton) play no role in moving
ahead the story, and thus impart a peculiar, static quality to the narrative.

This is an unfortunate way for Nathan Zuckerman to leave the stage. He is
one of the most memorable characters in modern fiction, and has inspired
several brilliant novels. But readers wanting to experience the magic of this
famous protagonist are advised to start back at the beginning with
Ghost Writer
, rather than with this uneven volume.

This review originally appeared in

by Philip Roth

Much like Thomas
Mann attempted in
Buddenbrooks, Philip
Roth traces the rise
and decline of a
family over the
course of several
decades.  The main
protagonist of
American Pastoral is
Swede Levov, the
former star high
school athlete
turned successful
businessman, who
watches his world
collapse around
him, as the
of the times
penetrates into his
secluded family life.  
Roth artfully mixes
events from the
Vietnam era into his
tale of generational
conflict and social