Pity the poor body. Since philosopher René Descartes uncoupled it from the mind in the 17th century, it has been second banana. Storytellers have fetishized the mind and exalted it as the locus of character and the self. The body has been along mainly for the ride ever since, the mind's sherpa.
Philip Roth, however, is one of the literary masters most attentive to the body. He has written lovingly about its lusts (Portnoy's Complaint), its decrepitude (The Dying Animal) and the intersection of the two (a ribald graveside scene in Sabbath's Theater). In his slim, stark novel Everyman (Houghton Mifflin; 182 pages), about the life and (mostly) death of an unnamed adman, Roth plays the body's trump card: someday it will die and take the mind with it.
Roth, 73, has said he was inspired to write Everyman by growing old, seeing friends die (including author Saul Bellow) and realizing that few novelists have written about the simple process of death. Everyman is essentially a medical biography. It begins at its end: the protagonist's burial in a rundown Jewish cemetery in New Jersey near his parents. It then returns to the beginning, cataloging his brushes with mortality--a drowned sailor washes up near his boyhood home during WWII, a burst appendix nearly kills him in his 30s--then jumps to his old age, a parade of annual hospitalizations. In between, there's a life, including three failed marriages, several infidelities and artistic ambitions he set aside, but Roth draws them with uncharacteristic sketchiness. (A stretch of midlife health is described thus: "Twenty-two years passed," with little elaboration.)
It is an ancient idea: death renders us all the same. The protagonist sees those around him reduced to symptoms--an ex-wife felled by a stroke, a lady friend racked with back pain, an ex-colleague failing mentally. Roth is writing in the medieval tradition of memento mori--remember that you must die. (The novel's title comes from a Christian morality play about a visit from Death.) But Roth's protagonist rejects the "hocus-pocus" of God and Heaven. If he were to write his autobiography, he thinks, "he'd call it The Life and Death of a Male Body." For this Everyman, there is only life and the "deadening depersonalization" of illness, which negates the self.
The problem is that in fiction, let alone life, the singular self does matter. Trying to make a Jersey boy who shares Roth's cultural background and birth year (1933) into an archetype, effacing his individuality, inhibits the reader from feeling the protagonist's loss emotionally, rather than just intellectually. (And denying him a name creates pronoun confusion whenever "he" talks to another man.) That Everyman's hero dies is universal. How he dies is not: he is alone, isolated from his brother, sons and ex-wives because of his traits and choices--often selfish, childish ones--but Roth has sketched his story in broad terms that read like mere outlines of his earlier novels.