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Going, yet hardly gently, into that good night

Philip Roth's new novel welds imagination and memory to sketch an average man amid the siege of old age

Everyman
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 184 pp., $24

In more than two dozen books over a half-century, Philip Roth has sacrificed himself without mercy at the altar of literature: used himself liberally and sometimes profligately as character, doppelganger, literary super- and alter-ego. He is smarter and wiser and sometimes more irritating than most of his peers, and he's as essential to the experience of modern America -- its literature, history, and moral reckoning -- as any writer on the planet.

But some day soon in the micro-seconds of time, he will be gone, vanished from the Earth, his novels one voluble record of his life, along with countless memories that belong to others. So, too, will you and I, and that is the hard-driven point of ''Everyman," whose 71-year-old protagonist is never named. Fulfilled or desolate, young or ancient, we are all compost eventually. Death's nonchalant ubiquity, in other words, prefaced by these sweet, half-knowing moments in between.

''Everyman" is a brief, piercing novel, a grim cri de coeur that has all the mellifluous authenticity of the Kaddish. Its first three words are ''Around the grave," and even after that resounding start, the book is almost impossible to stop reading, whether one is swept up in the story's desolate fluency or scans it for autobiographical details. And how can you not, really? This everyman is roughly the age of Roth (who was born in 1933) and has many of the same real-life sketchings, from the Jewish family in New Jersey to the brother he adores. But that is old news in the world of Roth, whose ruthless plumbing of his own depths has formed the edifice of much of his fiction for decades, whether Nathan Zuckerman or the character of ''Philip Roth" or the sheer overriding sensibility and intelligence of the novels themselves. And in ''Everyman," that sensibility is the whole and thrust of the work. It is the voice, the last gasp of a fellow on his way out, that tells us what this man lived and feared and regretted and, saddest of all, what he loved.

The only part of the novel that feels technically amiss is at the beginning, when the protagonist's survivors are delivering their halting, impromptu eulogies at the grave. This passage is necessarily meant to provide a sort of resume -- to introduce us to the man whom these people, gathered in a run-down Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Elizabeth, N.J., have come to bury. Still, what mourning brother would stand graveside in front of three grown children, an ex-wife, and a few acquaintances, and name the job titles his recently departed sibling had held at the ad agency where he worked all his life? Clunkers like this belong to novices; from someone with Roth's mastery, the device merely feels sloppy.

From that initial grinding of gears, though, comes the full-throttle power of the rest of the story, which shifts almost immediately to the consciousness of the man now gone. Howie, the brother, introduced us to their retrospectively idyllic childhood -- their father, a jeweler with a signatured loupe to scrutinize his diamonds and the generosity to extend full credit to the Christian clientele who warily came around his store. There were summers on the Jersey shore and the stunning simplicity of ocean salt and blinding sun, and there were girls and books -- ''Treasure Island" and ''Kim" -- and the long-ago memory of the German U-boats during World War II that prowled the East Coast shipping lanes. There were the first glimpses of death and its inevitability -- the body of a drowned seaman he and Howie had seen one summer at the beach, the hernia operation from which he'd feared he'd never awaken. And the parents who had consoled him then: ''You hear the bell, you come out fighting," his father told him. ''Right?"

Right, and so he tried throughout his life, even if the opponents of the fights were sometimes ill-selected: Two bad marriages and a wonderful one in-between, though our melancholy wanderer didn't have the sense to see it then. The children from these liaisons still haunt him and care for him: two sons from the first marriage who will never forgive him, a daughter from the second who never indicted him. All his offspring form the meat and gristle of his memories now, along with his place on the planet and whether it mattered or took anyone down. But the one unequivocally loyal relationship of his life belongs to Howie, who tried to shelter him as a boy and man both, through years of health and then ''the adversary that is illness and the calamity that waits in the wings."

Because really, ''Everyman" is a story framed on a man's medical history, from that first scary stay in the hospital to innumerable feints and sways against the dark -- heart stents, angiograms, anesthesia and fear and incapacity. The pockets of calm that exist around and in spite of these infirmities form the efforts at well-being: A successful creative director who waited his entire working life to retire and paint, only to find himself used up after a few canvases and years; a relocation to a peaceful condo on the Jersey shore, only to find himself bored and lonely. Such circumstances are as commonplace as they are grim; it is typical Roth that they are rendered here with an intimate sorrow that makes them seem positively tragic.

''Old age isn't a battle," our narrator finally contemplates. ''Old age is a massacre." Or, in Hamlet's final words, ''The rest is silence." ''Everyman" is a swift, brutal novel about a heartbreakingly ordinary subject, and it is also testament to Roth that the book leaves you a little breathless and not at all bereft. The protagonist's burial of his father is so stark and true that reading it is a physical experience; the man's return to the cemetery years later for his sole comfort -- ''the bones endure" -- is a piece of authorial genius. For decades people have tried to connect the dots between Roth's life and fiction. But the most intimate thing he has given us, time and again, is that resonant and intrepid record of his own soul.

Gail Caldwell is the chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at caldwell@globe.com.

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