From the Publisher
“[A] disturbing masterpiece.” —The New York Review of Books
“Sorrowful, sexy, elegant . . . [A] distinguished addition to Roth’s increasingly remarkable literary career.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“Roth is a mesmerizing writer, whose very language has the vitality of a living organism.” –The Los Angeles Times
“No one can come close to Roth’s comic genius and breadth of moral imperative.” –The Boston Globe
Fans of Philip Roth -- arguably the greatest living American writer -- need no introduction to the hero of The Dying Animal, David Kepesh, whose previous incarnations as a sexual being were chronicled in The Breast and The Professor of Desire. Kepesh, divorced, white-haired, and over 60, is an eminent TV cultural critic and a star lecturer at a New York college. But in the aftermath of a relationship with a well-mannered Cuban student named Consuelo Castillo, Kepesh finds his life in erotic disarray.
The productivity and urgency of Roth's work for the past decade stand alone in contemporary American fiction. This novel is clearly an attempt to get down what he knows about life and culture. But surely dispatches this urgent have rarely been so honed, so irreducible and hard, so compassionate and unforgiving. There isn't an American writer working who can touch him.
Novelists who like to resurrect their protagonists from book to book are often said to use those figures for a kind of literary division of labor. Different stock characters allow the novelist to stake out diverse personae, no single one of whom encapsulates the author's entire sensibility. Perhaps more than any other contemporary writer, Philip Roth is devoted to the practice. He has what he calls his "Zuckerman books" (in fact, eight of them); the experimental "Roth books," whose protagonist, "Philip Roth," dramatizes the blurry boundaries between fact and fiction; and his "Kepesh books"to which he now adds a mordant novella, The Dying Animal.
To read Roth's novels with any degree of sympathy is to fall instantly beneath the spell of their characteristic first-person narrative and to feel the power of Roth's voice: urgent, intimate, captivatingly intelligent and bitterly comic. Nearly all of Roth's heroes are desperate people, yearning to make sense of their lives and at the same time to grab us by the lapels. What has distinguished Kepesh in this group is simply that he is a little more desperate, a little less dignified than his peers.
Divided between his high-minded dedication to culture and his rampaging id, Kepesh has raved in solipsistic isolation through two previous novels. In The Breast, Roth's homage to Kafka and Gogol published in 1972, the lecherous Kepesh found himself unaccountably transformed into a six-foot-tall, 155-pound human mammary gland. Five years later, a prequel, The Professor of Desire, recounted the sorry tale of Kepesh's early romantic history, in which, torn between his longing for the dignified life of theman of letters and his irrepressible desires, Kepesh wheeled from one disastrous relationship to another.
While Roth never explains how Kepesh escaped the anatomical imprisonment he experienced in The Breast to become the man he is herean elderly, mildly self-important and slightly ridiculous cultural critiche does make it clear that The Dying Animal is a kind of coda to his recent trilogy. Kepesh's biography is a testament to the bewildering course of postwar American history and to the astonishing, and terrifying, freedoms it appeared to open.
For Kepesh, the heart of this story lies in the sexual revolution, but, like Roth's earlier protagonists, he is never able to think of his personal desires and his private torments without imagining that they exemplify a larger vision of American liberty. "Am I or am I not a candidate for this wild, sloppy, raucous repudiation, this wholesale wrecking of the inhibitive past?" Kepesh asks himself. "Can I master the discipline of freedom as opposed to the recklessness of freedom? How does one turn freedom into a system?" Those are big questions, and in Roth's recent work they have resulted in big, complex and profoundly dark novels.
Kepesh is a media persona, the kind of critic who does three-minute essays on PBS and book reviews for NPR. His natural genre is not tragedy but farce, and he appears accordingly at the center of that classic story of ludicrous behavior, the older man's obsession with a younger woman. The Dying Animal is the story of his brief affair and long, jealous obsession with Consuela Castillo, a voluptuous young student nearly forty years his junior.
As Kepesh notes himself, this is not a story designed to evoke sorrow and pity. We have entered, he warns, "the realm of the ridiculous." Except that Roth's novel never really becomes that ridiculous, and his heart never seems in the farcical story he appears to have set out to tell.
For a tale of sexual obsession, the story is weirdly lacking in vitality, or passion or comedy, and it includes few of the hallmarks of erotic torment (the fetishistic lingering over the love object, the constant worry over the intentions of the beloved, the anguished speculation about rivals) traditional to the genre. Kepesh admits that he suffered terrible jealousy, but we never get the sense that he has felt a pang. Roth seems more interested in diagramming the conflicts that have long bothered Kepeshthe tensions between mind and body, freedom and conventionthan in making his alleged torment seem real. With the exception of a brilliantly vivid subplot in which Kepesh recounts his battles with his reproachful, middle-age son, the book remains strangely lifeless, and Kepesh's passion seems mainly theoretical. As if to underscore that fact, Roth ends the story with a crude plot twist lifted almost directly from Jacqueline Susann's cult novel Valley of the Dolls.
Rather than a story about an old man's silly efforts to hold onto youth, the book turns out to be a tribute to Kepesh's intelligence and rigor, to the tentative victory of freedom over desire, of mind over bodyand, ultimately, of Kepesh over Consuela. It is an ugly conclusion to a story that grows harsher and more disturbing as one goes along. In the novella's unsettling last lines, Roth hints at a possibility that also haunted Kepesh's narrative in The Breast, that we may have been imprisoned all along in the deluded thoughts of a highly unreliable narrator. The triumph of Kepesh's freedom, it seemslike his bodily imprisonmentmay be all in his mind.
Sean McCann (Excerpted Review)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Eros and mortality are the central themes of Roth's frank, unsparing and curious new novella. It's curious not only because of its short form (new for Roth), but because he seems to have assumed the mantle of Saul Bellow, writing pages of essay-like exposition on contemporary social phenomena and advancing the narrative through introspection rather than dialogue. The protagonist is again David Kepesh (of The Breast and The Professor of Desire), who left his wife and son during the sexual revolution vowing to indulge his erotic needs without encumbrance. Kepesh is now an eminent 70-year-old cultural critic and lecturer at a New York college, recalling a devastating, all-consuming affair he had eight years before with voluptuous 24-year-old Consuela Castillo, a graduate student and daughter of a prosperous Cuban migr family. From the beginning, Kepesh is oppressed by the "unavoidable poignancy" of their age difference, and he suffers with the jealous knowledge that this liaison will likely be his last; even when locked in the throes of sexual congress, a death's head looms in his imagination. The end of the affair casts him into a long depression. When Consuela contacts him again eight years later, on the New Year's Eve of the millennium, their reunion is doubly ironic in the Roth tradition. Consuela has devastating news about her body, and it's obvious that retribution is at hand for the old libertine. Roth's candor about an elderly man's consciousness that he's "a dying animal" (from the Yeats poem) is unsentimental, and his descriptions of the lovers' erotic acts push the envelope in at least one scene involving menstruation. The novella is as brilliantly written, line by line, as any book in Roth's oeuvre, and it's bound to be talked about with gusto. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
That the listener may come to dislike the narrator of this story is testament to its intensity. David Kepesh, professor of comparative literature and local TV pundit, is in his 70s when he confides this account of his May-December affair with a former student. Told in the first person, Kepesh's introduction to himself and to Consuela, his 24-year-old love goddess (ask him about her breasts), is framed within a value system that uses sex as its mortar. Kepesh, whom Roth introduced as a 38-year-old in The Breast and later starred in The Professor of Desire, never outgrew the 1960s free-love culture that inspired him to leave his wife and son to hold court as a sexual savant. Kepesh may not be likable, but he is fascinating. Reader Arliss Howard relates the story as if to a dinner companion a bit bored, unabashed, and pruriently matter-of-fact. A former National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, Roth ensnares the listener with a rich narrative; highly recommended for all adult fiction collections. Judith Robinson, Univ. at Buffalo, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
The recent creative surge that has produced some of Roth's best fiction continues with this intense short novel narrated by David Kepesh (protagonist also of The Breast and The Professor of Desire), who's a more highly eroticized counterpart of Roth's other serial alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. The subject is Kepesh's reluctant arrival at the threshold of old age and his unquenched vulnerability to the spectacle of sex, to which he wryly refers as "the imbecility of lust" and "the chaos of eros." Its specific focus is his memory, eight years after the fact, of his consuming affair with Consuela Castillo, a beautiful Cuban-American student and the last of a series of younger mistresses who had assuaged his aging for more than 40 years, dating back to the early years of his long-ago (only) marriage. Kepesh's detailed anatomy (no other word will really do) of Consuela's charms stimulates brief memory glimpses of other women (some companionable divorcées of mature years, others embodiments of the swinging '60s whose boldness simultaneously delighted and puzzled him), as well as more discursive (and labored) reflections on "Lord of Misrule" Thomas Morton of Puritan Massachusetts's "Merry Mount" colony; Kepesh's tortured relationship with his middle-aged son Kenny (another victim of sex, to whom his vagrant father is a dead ringer for Dostoevsky's lustful patriarch, Karamazov pére), andin the most potent scene herethe last hours of Kepesh's closest male friend, an adulterous poet who incarnates man the "dying animal" (a phrase from a Yeats poem) clinging to the last fumbling vestiges of the sexuality that enables him to deny death. Roth then struggles, with mixed success, to pull these strands together in the climax, which occurs on the cusp of the recent millennium, as Consuela returns to him, to confront the fact of her own mortality. "This need. This derangement. Will it never stop?," Roth's most sexually importunate figure demands of himself. Probably notand we'll probably be treated to further ruminations on why this should be so in a future David Kepesh novel.
Read an Excerpt
No matter how much you know, no matter how much you think, no matter how much you plot and you connive and you plan, you’re not superior to sex. With these words our most unflaggingly energetic and morally serious novelist launches perhaps his fiercest book. The speaker is David Kepesh, white-haired and over sixty, an eminent cultural critic and star lecturer at a New York college–as well as an articulate propagandist of the sexual revolution. For years he has made a practice of sleeping with adventurous female students while maintaining an aesthete’s critical distance. But now that distance has been annihilated.
The agency of Kepesh’s undoing is Consuela Castillo, the decorous and humblingly beautiful 24-year-old daughter of Cuban exiles. When he becomes involved with her, Kepesh finds himself dragged–helplessly, bitterly, furiously–into the quagmire of sexual jealousy and loss. In chronicling this descent, Philip Roth performs a breathtaking set of variations on the themes of eros and mortality, license and repression, selfishness and sacrifice. The Dying Animal is a burning coal of a book, filled with intellectual heat and not a little danger.