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. …