By Philip Roth
Completed August 29, 2008
In his latest installment of Nathan Zuckerman stories, Philip Roth created a story of an aging literary genius who was battling several demons: incontinence, impotence, a failing memory and worries about his legacy. This is my first Zuckerman book where he narrated (he did appear in The Human Stain but more as a minor character), and I found his storytelling to be intelligent, desperate and enthralling.
Zuckerman lived in near-isolation in the Berkshires but traveled to his old stomping ground, New York City, for an experimental procedure to help with his incontinence (a result of prostate cancer). While there, he becomes intrigued by an ad where a young couple wanted to swap homes for a year. Jamie and Billy were looking for a country refuge to escape the scares of terrorism in post-09/11 New York City. On a whim, Zuckerman agreed to meet the couple and became mesmerized by the beguiling Jamie (frustrating for an impotent Zuckerman).
Through Jamie, an ambitious young writer, Richard Kliman, contacted Zuckerman. Kliman was writing a biography on a long-forgotten American author, E.I. Lonoff, (one of Zuckerman’s heroes). However, Kliman wanted to add a scandal to Lonoff’s story. Outraged, Zuckerman realized that he’s an old man – no match for the young energy produced by Kliman – and wondered: After Zuckerman died, who was to stop a young author from writing his biography full of scandal and secrets?
This story documented the journey of a genius, dealing with the physical limitations of an aging body and the slow mental decline of his brain. You felt Zuckerman’s desperation, frustration and determination to remain the man he once was. More than that, though, you shared Zuckerman’s concern for his legacy, literary canon and lack of control over both once he was gone.
I thought Exit Ghost was brilliant. Filled with witty prose, political satire and ageism, I look forward to reading Zuckerman’s stories set during his prime. You have to wonder if Zuckerman’s creator, Philip Roth, shared his character’s frustrations as an aging writer. If what I’ve read is any indication, Roth is secure in his legacy as one of American’s greatest writers.