My Life as an Old Man: The Dying Animal

By Bush, Ronald | Tikkun, January/February 2002 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

My Life as an Old Man: The Dying Animal

Bush, Ronald, Tikkun

My Life as an Old Man: The Dying Animal

Ronald Bush is Drue Heinz professor of American literature at Oxford University and author or editor of books about T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, primitivism and modernist culture, and cultural property and the negotiation of group identity (forthcoming).

Philip Roth must have known he would be pummelled for this brief, ambiguous, and disturbing sequel to his acclaimed three-volume social history of post-war America--American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000). The Dying Animal's reversion to private, male sexual preoccupations goes out of its way to reinforce public stereotypes about Roth's previous work. That the novel continues his treatment of post-war culture in its principal subplot (the story of a first generation Cuban immigrant, Consuela Castillo), and that it signals a high level of narrative irony by resurrecting as its protagonist David Kepesh, the hapless hero of Roth's Kafkaesque 1970 parable The Breast, is easily overlooked.

Essentially, The Dying Animal rewrites The Human Stain's old man/young woman story in a more provocative way. Roth's need to provoke, in fact, was strong enough to make him alter his previous account of Kepesh's life. Not only does he here omit Kepesh's midlife metamorphosis into a breast--admittedly a hard act to follow--he also changes Kepesh's marital history. In The Breast and its prequel, The Professor of Desire (1977), Kepesh sired no children. The Dying Animal gives Kepesh a grown son, Kenny, long since left behind as a child of divorce. It also gives, by way of Kenny's tirades against his father, a voice to those readers who would take Roth to task for his apparent selfish hedonism.

Alas, the family-oriented Kenny himself develops marital problems, making it easier for Kepesh to mount a defense. What a defense, though. Consider: Kepesh vehemently maintains (the whole book is a long monologue to an unidentified listener) that "only when you fuck is everything that you dislike in life and everything by which you are defeated in life purely, if momentarily, revenged. Only then are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself."

Kepesh insists that American cultural history culminated in the uninhibited Sixties--"The clash between Plymouth and Merry Mount, between Bradford and Morton, between rule and misrule--the colonial harbinger of the national upheaval three hundred and thirty odd years later when Morton's American was born at last, miscegenation and all." The Sixties, in fact, have dictated the course of Kepesh's mature life: "I took seriously the disorder of those relatively few years, and I took the world of the moment, liberation, in its fullest meaning. That's when I left my wife ... I was determined, once I saw the disorder for what it was to seize from the moment a rationale for myself ... to follow the logic of this revolution to its conclusion, and without having become its casualty."

In the Sixties, then, Kepesh became a committed libertine, divesting himself of permanent attachment to be free to sleep with an ever-increasing series of consenting students. (His one nod to conventional morality was that after the sexual harassment reforms of the last decade, he prudently limited himself to students no longer under his care, whom he courts in annual after-term parties.) Hence he concludes: "Pleasure is our subject. How to be serious over a lifetime about one's modest, private pleasures."

It is this seriousness which at the age of sixty-two leads to Kepesh's affair with Consuela, a twenty-four-year-old ex-secretary with relatively old-fashioned views about love and marriage and a strong affection for her traditional Cuban father. Kepesh becomes obsessed with her, and most particularly with "the most gorgeous breasts I have ever seen--and I was born, remember, in 1930: I have seen quite a few breasts by now. These were round, full, perfect."

The reader be warned, however.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

My Life as an Old Man: The Dying Animal


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?