Exit Ghost by PHILIP ROTH

Reviewed by John Freeman

We should have known he would not go gentle into that good night. From the moment Philip Roth emerged in print, almost 40 years ago now, his prose reveled in its coherent vitality. "Unlike those of us who come howling into the world, blind and bare," Saul Bellow wrote at the time, "Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair, teeth, speaking coherently. He is skilled, witty, energetic and performs like a virtuoso." How could something so exuberant ever die? But in recent years, as Roth surpassed middle age and then sailed into his 70s, he has begun to see death less as a joke and more like the mandate it is.

From Patrimony to Sabbath's Theater, on to The Dying Animal and now Exit Ghost, the sobering coda to his Nathan Zuckerman series, Roth has begun to explore just what that means for the aging. This project has required a series of complicated leave-takings, of which Exit Ghost is the third and most substantial. After all, Zuckerman has acquired a lot of baggage over the years and there are some knots to be untangled. Roth first introduced him in his elegantly tidy 1979 novel, The Ghost Writer, when Zuckerman was just a middle-aged novelist looking back on the pilgrimage he made in 1956 to the home of his writer hero, E. I. Lonoff. Zuckerman was then "twenty-three, writing and publishing my first short stories, and like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman."

Three decades on, that Bildungsroman has indeed become truly massive. It stretches from Zuckerman's brush with fame in The Anatomy Lesson to his confusion over Israel in The Counterlife, on down through Roth's books of the late '90s, for which Zuckerman serves as a kind of mediating consciousness. Exit Ghost puts him back at the center of the tale, even as he has moved to the periphery of his world. Zuckerman, we learn, has spent 11 productive years in New England, eschewing controversy and romance for the sustaining embers of work. He is drawn back New York City for a bladder operation, to which he submits in hopes of "exerting somewhat more control over my urine flow than an infant."

Zuckerman's medical procedure -- and the fact that it has rendered him impotent as well -- sets the sad, blackly comic tone of Exit Ghost. Indeed, though the title of this novel comes from Macbeth, its presiding spirit is King Lear. Zuckerman wanders around New York as if it were his heath, bruised and bewildered, shocked to see how easily life in the city trundles on without him. In ten years, women's skirts have gotten shorter, and everyone has a cellular phone pressed to their ears. "What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say," Zuckerman wonders, "so much so pressing that it couldn't wait to be said?"

But that's just the easy stuff. Over the course of a few short days, Zuckerman has a series of interactions that don't just remind him how long he has been away, but what comes next. The first person Zuckerman thinks to visit is dead. The first acquaintance he runs into is Lonoff's ex-lover, Amy Bellette, who has just emerged from brain surgery, her skull marked by "a raw, well-defined scar that curved from behind her ear up to the edge of her brow." She is a mockery of Zuckerman's lusty memories of her. Later, they meet to talk of old days, and Zuckerman sees her at the foot of her dingy walk-up, "now even more pitiful to behold in a long shapeless lemon-colored dress meant to exude gaiety" but which does quite the opposite.

Rather than flee back north, Zuckerman extends his stay and gets bitten by the New York bug of new beginnings. At a restaurant, in between changing his Depends, he spies an ad in The New York Review of Books for an apartment swap, and he leaps into action. The apartment is occupied by two young writers, Richard and Jamie, a woman so gorgeous the reader knows immediately a whole new mockery of Zuckerman is about to begin. Immediately after he signs on for a year in their apartment, Zuckerman begins to receive phone calls from Kliman, an arrogantly self-assured biographer who wants to resurrect Lonoff's career by breaking a sordid story about the late writer's sexual history. His evidence? Extracts of a novel Lonoff never finished, which suggest an incestuous relationship with his sister. The affront of it all drives Zuckerman into action and back to his desk, where he begins writing a series of dialogues between himself and Jamie, with Kliman playing a minor role.

Though Zuckerman's powers of persuasion have waned, his creator's have aged well. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Zuckerman's playlettes, which Roth splices right into the text without much throat-clearing from Zuckerman and nothing but dialogue to move it forward. Even though we know these conversations are fictional, it's hard not to believe in them, to not care what happens, to not grow anxious by the extramarital tension Zuckerman works up toward -- no surprise -- a slightly pornographic froth. Here is Zuckerman's subtle but powerful rejoinder to Kliman's biographical mode: watch me create something out of nothing. On the page it is true -- and yet in the real world there is no relation to fact whatsoever.

In addition to these bravura dialogues, throughout Exit Ghost there are passages of vintage Roth, narrative paragraphs that stretch across two pages, climbing toward revelations about aging and the literary game which would seem minor were they not so perfectly described. Kliman and Zuckerman's first true argument, which takes place by the Central Park reservoir, is one of the best scenes Roth has written. "Back in the drama," Zuckerman thinks after it concludes, "back into the turmoil of events!... There is the pain of being in the world, but there is also the robustness. When was the last time I had felt the excitement of taking someone on?"

The argumentative gusto of Roth's fiction has always made his novels, even the best of them, somewhat exhausting to read. One finishes The Counterlife banged and embattled, wrung-out. At the end of Sabbath's Theater, if you haven't shed a tear or two in laughter (and in grief) it's time to check your pulse. Though it possesses some of the same postmodern mirroring and investigates some of the same themes as these books, Exit Ghost is not nearly such a house aflame. Long before the situation with Jamie or Kliman gets out of control, Zuckerman knows well enough to step aside, to slip out the back entrance and back to his desk. This wily, elegant, sobering book reminds us -- all over again -- that is where the true art happens, until it stops.

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle. He is writing a book for Scribner on the tyranny of email.