The Dying Animal
Halio, Jay, Shofar
by Philip Roth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. 156 pp. $23.00.
Eroticism has always been a part of Philip Roth's fiction, but until recently death has scarcely entered as a major subject, certainly not in the context of eros. In Sabbath's Theater (1995) and The Dying Animal (2001) both eros and thanatos figure prominently. Whether this reflects Roth's current preoccupations, a result perhaps of his own advancing age and past serious illnesses, I cannot say, though it would hardly surprise me if that were true. We have learned, however, not to make too close a connection between fiction and autobiography. Roth has been emphatic about that, as his surrogate, "Philip," says in Deception, referring to the critics:
"I write fiction and I'm told it's autobiography, I write autobiography and I'm told it's fiction, so if I'm so dim and they're so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn't."
It's not likely that in The Dying Animal David Kepesh is Roth's surrogate. Resurrected from The Breast (1972), which is not mentioned, and The Professor of Desire (1977), which is only once alluded to, David Kepesh is close enough at 70, when the novel opens, to Roth's age (67); but almost everything else about him is not. Kepesh is a radio and television celebrity, a critic of culture and a parttime professor at a college in New York. Roth has long since given up teaching and was never a media star.
Kepesh likes to bring the students from his senior seminar in "Practical Criticism" to his apartment after their final exam, and it is then that he chooses the one he will sleep with. Long divorced from his (unnamed) wife and estranged from their only child, Kenny, who despises him, Kepesh has lived since the 1960s a life fully given to hedonism, or the unconstrained life of pleasure, especially sexual pleasure. "A rake among scholars, a scholar among rakes," he recounts his story to an unspecified listener, probably a woman, a current mistress, but hardly Dr. Spielvogel (in Portnoy's Complaint) or any other psychotherapist.
The story focuses mainly upon a Cuban-American beauty, Consuela Castillo, she of the beautiful breasts who was once Kepesh's student and later his lover. Kepesh digresses from time to time to recount his affairs with others, such as another former student, Carolyn Lyons, who enters his life again years afterwards with almost disastrous results during his affair with Consuela. This digression and others usefully put the story of his obsession with Consuela into perspective.
Throughout, Kepesh details and defends his hedonism, abetted by his friend, the Irish poet George O'Hearn, who, though still married and a father of grown children, not only eggs David on to ever greater sexual triumphs, but almost rivals him in his own numerous amours. …