Roth retires an alter ego on par with Trout and Bech

By Oliver Mosier

He went to the University of Chicago for his undergraduate education in the 1950s. He came to the Midwest as a young Jewish kid from the Weequahic section of Newark with a keen wit and a penchant for literature. His name was Nathan Zuckerman, and you’ve probably heard of his creator, Philip Roth.

This year marks the end for Zuckerman, which is kind of an ending for Roth. Roth, however, seemingly has no retirement plans. With the publication of Exit Ghost later this year, Roth will lay to rest his most enduring protagonist. That is worth a living eulogy.

The novel will reportedly focus on Zuckerman’s return to New York City from life in the Berkshires. While he may not have the darkness of Mickey Sabbath or the hilarious perversion of Alexander Portnoy, Zuckerman has stood the test of time. We have seen him grow old, often paralleling the ups and downs of his alter ego.

Literary audiences have witnessed the maturation of Roth through Zuckerman since 1979’s The Ghost Writer. Zuckerman has grown up and aged in a way often impossible for recurring characters. Fans of Roth can only imagine what became of the aging Portnoy. Zuckerman, thought, can be traced alongside Roth. In Zuckerman Unbound, the second Zuckerman novel, published in 1981, the main character struggles with the problems associated with fame. Roth addresses the difficulty the public often has in separating fiction from reality. Fans wondering if all that wild stuff in his novel Carnovsky really happened hound Zuckerman. Carnovsky is of course Zuckerman’s Portnoy’s Complaint. The irony of the novel is that many read Zuckerman Unbound partially as an autobiographical portrait despite the book’s obvious themes to the contrary. It is a joke played on the reader where only Roth is privy to its punch line.

Tracing the Zuckerman lineage further from Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, The Prague Orgy, and The Counterlife followed. The stylistic aspects of each novel often changes, sometimes in the voice of Zuckerman observing the world, sometimes with others observing Zuckerman through the assistance of a third-person narrator. This shift gives real depth to Zuckerman as a multi-dimensional character. By the early 1980s, Roth had already achieved a lifetime of success in the literary world. Zuckerman gave the author the power of unadulterated reflection. Exit Ghost will be the ninth and final Zuckerman novel. While Roth is always finding new ways to strike at the core of the American consciousness, Zuckerman has never been too far behind.

After a brief hiatus, Zuckerman returned in 1997 to narrate perhaps Roth’s greatest work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral. American Pastoral is a chilling portrait of the darker side of the American Dream in the form of tragic figure, Swede Lelov. Swede’s story is told through Zuckerman. American Pastoral was the first of Roth’s late ’90s trilogy on contemporary America with Zuckerman serving once again as Roth’s mouthpiece. The next two installments were I Married a Communist and The Human Stain.

The farewell to Nathan Zuckerman is the end of an important chapter in Roth’s literary career. Perhaps Roth, always cognizant of his own mortality, wants to end the character on his own terms. Zuckerman is most certainly a creation deserving of such special attention. Closure is something rarely afforded to people in their old age. Hopefully Roth will have time to reflect on Zuckerman and the way Zuckerman allowed him to expand artistically.

Nathan Zuckerman belongs in the inner circle of great alter egos, alongside Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout and John Updike’s Henry Bech. Philip Roth has won nearly every prominent literary award and has a strong case for greatest living writer. It was in 1959 that Roth both published his first book and won his first award. The book was a collection of stories entitled Goodbye, Columbus and garnered the coveted 1960 National Book Award. So, now nearly five decades after that initial publication, we prepare once again to say adieu.

Goodbye, Zuckerman.