by John Dicker & r & & r & Everyman by Philip Roth & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hat was it Woody Allen who said, "Death is easy and comedy is hard"? Well, Philip Roth just upended that assertion in a big way. In his latest novel, Everyman, death proves to be very hard indeed. "Old age is not a battle," Roth writes. "Old age is a massacre."

Chipper as that sounds, Everyman is vintage Roth: Full of passion, anger and vivid details of lives well lived and profoundly screwed up. Though Roth hasn't shied away from mortality issues before, Everyman is something of a departure. Yes, the narrative is firmly embedded in his native New Jersey. And yes, his now-patented storytelling trick of recounting a complicated life through a third-person, rearview mirror is in full effect. What's different is the focus is on death and dying above all else -- history, culture, even the characters themselves. Maybe this is why Roth doesn't even bother giving his protagonist a name.

If we don't know his name, we do know our main character has lived a life of ups and downs. A career advertising man, he married, had two sons, an affair and then divorced. Then he did the same thing all over again. There's minimal moral recrimination in all of this. His affairs were what they were. Now in his seventies with a daughter who loves him and two sons who curse his name, his convalescence is less golden than a stark gray.

His contemporaries are sick or dying off -- including his fellow colleagues, his second wife, the widows at the assisted living facility where he lives. Naturally the mourning is not limited to the grief of others. Witness:

"The affection of the sons of his first marriage he no longer pursued; he had never done the right thing by their mother or by them... If he yielded in the solitude of his long evenings to the temptation to call one or the other of them, he always felt saddened afterward, saddened and beaten."

Everyman doesn't exactly brim with happy fun fun. However, fans of serious fiction, and Roth in particular, know to seek other forms of satisfaction. And there's no shortage of it here in scenes where loss and grief manifest in ways so specific you're forced to marvel at their rendering instead of their implications. Because doing so is like staring at the sun, or more accurately, gazing at the guest of honor at an open-casket funeral.

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