Monday, March 29, 2010

Everyman by Philip Roth, 2006

Won the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction in 2007

This short, tightly constructed novel’s main subject is illness and aging, but on another level it is a story of a New Jersey Jewish extended family growing up in America. The ghostly first person narrator reminiscences at his own burial in an old somewhat neglected Jewish cemetery in New Jersey near the border of Elizabeth and Newark. This cemetery was founded in 1888 by a burial society started by the narrator’s immigrant grandfather who had owned and run a boarding house in Elizabeth. The novel includes several vivid descriptions of the cemetery.

There is a description of the narrator’s father who had first worked for a jeweler on Springfield Avenue in Irvington, but who then bought his own jewelry store in Elizabeth which he owned from 1933 to 1974. There are evocative scenes of the-day-to day business including a discussion of the tools of the trade like their stock of watches, discussions of his father giving credit, descriptions of their receiving visits from Hasidic diamond merchants from NYC and bus trips to Newark to take diamonds to the setters and sizers on Frelinghuysen Avenue.

This short novel is in many ways “typical” Philip Roth. Because Roth imbues his fiction with such loving, evocative detail, his fiction feels autobiographical- it feels real. This is especially true of the geography of his novels which are often set in New Jersey where Roth grew up. But it would be a mistake to assume that the novel is thinly veiled autobiography.

Click here to listen to an NPR interview with Philip Roth and to read an excerpt from Everyman

Frelinghuysen Avenue, Newark
Springfield Avenue, Irvington

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