America’s greatest living novelist is at it again: re-editing the country’s Puritan heritage, while obsessing over his own sexual psyche. What is this novel, Roth’s twenty-eighth? His thirtieth? I’ve lost count. All I remember is that back in the dark ages of my own life, I stumbled across a paperback reprint of Philip Roth’s first work, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), and ran my fingers over the lipstick image on the cover certain that it would smudge. When it didn’t, I forked out $1.45 for the book—a collection of five short stories which I then read pretty much in one gulp. I still have the book.
I’ve read Roth’s The Humbling just as quickly–swept away with his most recent work as I was with the first and most of the others. It’s hard to forget Letting Go (1962) or Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) all these years later, but the true wonder with Roth is the string of incredible novels he’s published in the maturity of his career, especially American Pastoral, The Human Stain, The Plot against America, and Indignation. And now The Humbling, which doesn’t have the stature of any of those afore-mentioned titles, but second-tier Roth is usually better than first-tier others. How does the guy keep writing like this? What keeps him going? His productivity has probably annoyed most of the other writers in the country, especially those suffering from writer’s block.
There is, in fact, a blocked character in The Humbling, but the blockage is not with writing or, as one might anticipate, with sex, but with acting. Simon Axler—Roth’s protagonist, somewhere in his early sixties—has been a leading actor on the American stage for decades, but suddenly when he gets in front of an audience he loses his confidence. Acting has become empty, without meaning, even frightening. To make things worse, his wife leaves him at the same time. His life, he knows, is in full retreat.
Then something strange happens. There’s an unexpected encounter with the forty-year-old daughter of a couple he grew up with. Her parents are still in regional theater; Axler’s known Pegree, their daughter, since she was a child. And what so often happens in Roth and in real life is the sexual relationship which grows out of a chance meeting. But the real surprise is that Pegree has been a lesbian all of her adult life. Axler is the first man she’s ever been with and, to make matters worse, her parents who have never really approved of her sexual orientation, aren’t very happy that she’s sexually involved with the man they knew all those years ago when they were young.
Neither Axler nor Pegree can quite fathom her parents’ disapproval. Does their condemnation mean that they preferred her as a lesbian? It hardly matters, since they’re all adults. Clearly, they can do whatever they want. So Axler and Pegree continue living together and after more than a year determine that the time is right to get married. Both decide that it’s appropriate that they have a child, which seems like even more of a commitment to Axler than to Pegree. He’s the one who’s been trapped in a fatherless life. He’s so excited about their future that he believes he will be able to return to the stage. He’s been rejuvenated in just about every possible way. That’s what their relationship has done for him.
Happy ending? Well no, we’re not likely to get that with Roth. I’ve intentionally not mentioned a couple of minor characters who are significant in the plot as well as in a rather startling sub-story—all in this tightly sprung novella. With Roth when you turn the page or begin a new chapter, you can rarely predict what’s going to happen. I thought that for once I had figured everything out, but then the master craftsman once again took over and shifted his characters around.
What’s missing from The Humbling are the menacing social and political contexts. There are absorbing characters and erotic regeneration, but Roth’s greatest novels typically depict Americans brought down by the forces of the country’s hypocrisy. This time, Roth keeps everything in plain sight, reducing much of the fear of the unknown, leaving little for the reader to ponder.
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 140 pp., $22
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.