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The Dying Animal

Philip Roth <em>Vintage, 176pp, £6.99</em>

ISBN 0099422697

What separates the sexagenarian David Kepesh - the priapic professor of Roth's earlier fiction - from death is sex. In this breathlessly libidinous monologue, he relives his affair, eight years ago, with Consuela, a 24-year-old Cuban student with "the most gorgeous breasts" he's ever seen. Kepesh is one big talking head - when he isn't getting off on Consuela's ample charms, he's sounding off about culture or ranting against convention. But for the first time in his life, this rigorous champion of sexual freedom becomes a slave to desire, consumed by jealousy and insecurity about his voluptuous young mistress.

Sex for Kepesh is "the one pure thing" but, in fact, it seems rather a mucky business here (with characteristic insistence on domination and bodily fluids). Such is the intensity of his lust, his feverish acquiescence to her sexual powers, that even the female reader is fooled (almost) into mistaking crude objectification for obeisance. This, we are told repeatedly, is a man who loves women. But there is little room for love in Roth's nihilistic vision. It is only when Consuela, cruelly punished for the youth and beauty that so tormented the ageing Kepesh, has been brutally desexualised by breast cancer that he can finally see her as a human being, not just a great pair of tits.

With masterful dissemblence, Roth turns the joke, a very sick one, against his hero and the reader. And so, with unflagging, indeed increased, urgency and conviction, Roth succeeds once more in exposing the depths of the male psyche - this is, after all, a very slim novel.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The unusual suspects