The hard years
Philip Roth's aging David Kepesh returns in The Dying Animal
by Richard C. Walls
This relatively terse yet typically loquacious book comes as a coda to Philip
Roth's renaissance decade, that late-period outburst during which he unburdened
himself of his most intellectual (Operation Shylock) and his most earthy
(Sabbath's Theater) meditations and then followed them up with three
hearty stabs at the great American novel. It's been an unexpected, even
inspirational second wind. Having reached some sort of plateau of maturity, of
seriousness, with all those Zuckerman stories, you would expect, in his seventh
decade, that he'd tail off a bit, maybe tell his tales with less vitality.
Instead, his five most recent books have been big and virile, with desperately
wounded characters whose narrators reiterate the details as though obsessively
thinking, "Have I made myself clear yet? Here's another
example . . . " It's a style Roth first revealed with
Portnoy's Complaint. His stories unfold through a series of elaborations
related by someone who will double back on an idea as though he had all the
time in the world. He means to bend your ear. He means to convince you.
So even The Dying Animal, which could be read in one comfortable
sitting, seems compulsively repetitious and oddly digressive. Here Roth has
revived David Kepesh, who was first seen as the title character in the
Kafka-esque The Breast (1972) and later as a devotee of eros and
literature in the more conventional The Professor of Desire (1977).
Enough biographical details in the current incarnation have been tampered with
that you can assume he's meant to be "Kepesh-ish" rather than a returning
character. Now 70 years old and a distinguished professor, he's still that
familiar Roth type, the randy poon hound whose preoccupation with and pursuit
of sex go way beyond the normal tug of libidinous heat. Although we're told
that he has a life off stage as a minor celebrity egghead and arbiter of
culture on a local NPR outlet, his most impressive achievement has been the
prodigious screwing of his female students. Kepesh served his marital time in
the '50s, freeing himself just as the '60s sexual revolution began to roil.
He's a familiar, annoying type, the hedonistic older guy who uses the lure of
authority to rustle some young flesh. In short, he's a pig.
Of course "in short" is anathema to Roth's approach, so we're invited to see
Kepesh in all his human complexity, to feel his pain. Talking to an
unidentified audience of one, he recounts an affair he had eight years earlier,
when he bedded the preternaturally beautiful Consuela, age 24. With her large
and perfect breasts, her beguiling black hair (at both poles), her sexual
pliability, she's the crowning achievement of his fornicating career, a Little
Annie Fanny blessed with Cuban soulfulness. But mortality is nipping at the
back of Kepesh's slippers, and this time out he can't muster that detachment so
essential to the successful roué. It's not that he's falling in love --
he's not wired that way. But even as he wins her, he's thinking about the pain
of losing her.
It's not clear, as Kepesh slogs through his season of comeuppance, whether Roth
intends us to be sympathetic or repelled or some bemused combination of both.
The author's large gift for profane comedy makes me wonder whether he isn't
putting us on. Kepesh has real aches, but he's also spectacularly grotesque.
The continuing theatricality of his lust holds us at a remove -- this isn't a
rutting Everyman, it's a Supercock whose last hard-on in the novel comes when
he attempts to comfort an ex-girlfriend suffering from cancer.
But that's desire for you, an idiot that doesn't care about lasting allegiances
or social niceties. Consider the both foul and funny scene where George
O'Hearn, Kepesh's best friend and another self-absorbed sex-drenched poor
bastard, is felled by a stroke and forced to lie in semi-conscious limbo,
waiting for his last blink. During one visiting period he suddenly recovers
enough mobility to make a lunge for the velcro of his hospital diaper; thwarted
from that last unsavory grope, he grabs his daughter and kisses her fervently
on the mouth, then does the same to Kepesh and then finally to his
long-suffering wife, who, once George has sunk back into his dying slumber,
says, "I wonder who he thought I was?" As if it made a difference.