Philip Roth completes his melancholic Zuckerman cycle

Roth's ninth, and last, Nathan Zuckerman novel is a dark meditation on the aging process.

Quick: 2007 marks the end of the road for which literary icon? No, not that one. Nathan Zuckerman may be scarred, but aside from that he has nothing in common with a certain teenage wizard – other than the fact that their fans are willing to read thousands of pages devoted to their stories.

(And believe me, Quidditch has done nothing to prepare the Hogwarts set to hang out with Zuckerman.)

But in a way, Exit Ghost, the ninth, and apparently last, of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Philip Roth's Zuckerman novels, is about coming of age. At least, it's a dark, occasionally comic, meditation on the aging process.

The title comes from a stage direction in "Macbeth," and completes the circle with Roth's first Zuckerman novel, "The Ghost Writer." In it, a star-struck, 23-year-old Zuckerman makes a pilgrimage to visit his literary hero, the short-story writer S.I. Lonoff. At the start of "Exit Ghost," Zuckerman is now an aging literary lion himself, living in seclusion just outside the same town in the Berkshires that Lonoff made his home.

After 11 years of a hermitlike existence (barring three days of cat ownership), Zuckerman returns to New York. A medical procedure brings him there, but once in the city, Zuckerman finds himself caught by the energy and people (especially the young women).

On a whim, he answers an ad to swap homes with a young couple for a year. On meeting them, Zuckerman becomes instantly infatuated with the wife, a 30-year-old Texas beauty named Jamie. (Anyone who thought age might have cured Roth or Zuckerman of their obsession with sex: Think again.)

Zuckerman begins writing a series of dialogues between himself and Jamie, and taking any excuse to visit her. "I was learning at 71 what it is to be deranged," he thinks ruefully. "Proving that self-discovery wasn't over after all."

"The end is so immense, it is its own poetry," Roth has Lonoff comment at the end of his life. "It requires little rhetoric. Just state it plainly." Roth, on the other hand, has devoted three books' worth of rhetoric to the subjects of aging and death, and "Exit Ghost," while it has a melancholy intelligence, doesn't feel like his last word on the topic.

The plot hinges on an unbelievable coincidence: The first person Zuckerman sees coming out of his doctor's office is Lonoff's former mistress, Amy Bellette, also now a septuagenarian who's been diagnosed with brain cancer. Bellette is being badgered by would-be biographer Richard Kliman (a former – and, Zuckerman worries, current – lover of Jamie's), who's determined to tell the world the "truth" about Lonoff.

Zuckerman loathes Kliman instantly, largely because of his youth, egotism, and past with Jamie. But Kliman gives him a justification for his anger with his "discovery" about Zuckerman's idol.

Based on a fragment of Lonoff's unfinished novel, Kliman has decided the writer engaged in an incestuous affair with his sister while both were teenagers.

Zuckerman's infatuation with Jamie – and his imaginary sexual conversations with her – get old quickly. Roth is much more insightful about a formerly powerful man coming to terms with the indignities of aging. While Zuckerman has become accustomed to dealing with his body's betrayals, and can be rueful and darkly humorous about them, there's real poignancy in a brilliant writer no longer being able to count on his intellect.

"Nothing is certain any longer except that this will likely be my last attempt to persist in groping for words to combine into the sentences and paragraphs of a book," he tells the reader. "Because permanent groping is what it is now, a groping that goes well beyond the anxious groping for fluency that writing is to begin with."

Less revelatory are Zuckerman's impressions of modern Manhattan. The discovery that many Americans feel undressed without a cellphone pressed to their ear isn't news (nor is the fact that fashion has taken a turn toward the scanty – although Zuckerman certainly applauds that last development).

Longtime readers of Roth will, of course, want to know how Zuckerman's story ends. "Exit Ghost" reads best as an ongoing conversation for them. And when Zuckerman focuses on the summing up of a life, his ruminations take on an elegiac strength. "I did what I did – that's all one knows looking backward."

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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