Goodbye America

For the past 30 years, Philip Roth's brilliant alter ego Nathan Zuckerman has chronicled the decline

Tony Soprano: "It's good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over." Dr Jennifer Melfi: "Many Americans, I think, feel that way." From the pilot episode of the Sopranos

"Reading/writing people, we are finished, we are ghosts witnessing the end of the literary era - take this down." E I Lonoff, deceased, dictating a letter to Amy Bellette in Philip Roth's new novel, Exit Ghost

It has not been a good year for New Jersey. First, the saga of the Garden State's favourite television socio paths, the Sopranos, came to its magnificent conclusion after ten years of putting most working novelists, American or otherwise, to shame. Now Newark's own Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth's fictional alter ego and the greatest portrayal of a novelist in literary history, is taking his final bow in Roth's tottering, if occasionally brilliant new novel, Exit Ghost.

Whether the final Zuckerman novel will elicit the same frenzied speculation as the finale of The Sopranos, or have Harry Potter-esque droves of people queuing outside Waterstone's at midnight, sporting Zuckerman costumes of adult diapers and vintage Olivetti typewriters, is another thing. Readers of great literature can't always be counted on to make public spectacles of themselves. But maybe they should. Because after almost three decades and nine books, it's time to say goodbye to Nathan Zuckerman.

Like his creator, Zuckerman was born in 1933 in the Jewish quarter of Newark, New Jersey - in a city that, to hear him tell it, no longer exists, in a country whose changes Roth's Zuckerman novels document in excruciating, often wrathful detail. Nathan Zuckerman was there - from the "triumph of gossip" and "personal betrayal" of the 1950s ("McCarthyism as the first postwar flowering of the American unthinking that is now everywhere"), to the "American berserk" of the 1960s, "when Oswald shot Kennedy and the straitlaced bulwark gave way to the Gargantuan banana republic" and all that followed: Vietnam, Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and an America where "blowing people apart replaced the roundhouse punch in the daydreams of the aggrieved", where "only annihilation gave satisfaction that lasted", to the "enormous piety binge" of Bill Clinton's blow-job fiasco and, finally, to the proof that not only did we learn nothing, but we learned nothing with incredible vigour and resolve: the post-9/11 Bush years. Through all of this, Roth's Zuckerman has been keeping tabs, ostensibly writing about himself and, of course, writing about writing, but also chronicling the decline and fall of the American dream as his father knew it. The hope-addled European immigrant's dream of the first half of the 20th century has been undermined by "the real American crazy shit. America amok! America amuck!"

Roth conflates the personal and the political to show how we got from there to here, and right in the middle is Nathan Zuckerman, the man whose life is literature and vice-versa - to the detriment of all else. Who better to guide us through the last half of the American century than a novelist like Zuckerman: a self-absorbed, celebrated, morally compromised and intellectually potent fabulist? Who else could make better sense of a big country whose watchword has always been self-creation?

Roth's most famous alter ego began his life as the alter ego of another of Roth's alter egos, the writer Peter Tarnopol, in the harrowing My Life as a Man (1974). In his autobiography, The Facts, Roth describes Zuckerman as someone "whose existence was comparable to my own and yet registered a more powerful valence, a life more highly charged and entertaining than my own". Which is a way of saying that there are similarities between Roth and Zuckerman, sure, but Zuckerman is way crazier. Where an anarchist might profess that the destructive impulse is also a creative one, Zuckerman's history in his first "trilogy and an epilogue" - The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Ana tomy Lesson (1983) and The Prague Orgy (1985) - proves the creative impulse, when properly pursued, can be as beneficial to your life as a bomb.

Among other things, these books chart Zuckerman's flight from the ethnic constrictions and "sentimental claims of a conventional, protective, worshipful family" in Jewish Newark to a longed-for intellectual emancipation in wider America. Success comes overnight with the publication of Zuckerman's Portnoy's Complaint-like novel, Carnovsky. But Carnovsky's depiction of, "Jews in a peep-show atmosphere of total perversion [ . . . ] Jews in acts of adultery, exhibitionism, masturbation, sodomy, fetish ism, and whoremongry" more or less kills Zuckerman's father, forever estranges him from his brother, nearly has his mother kidnapped and, understandably, sends Zuckerman reeling headlong into the paranoia of his times. Along the way, in one chewy, ingenious plot after another, our hero elaborately imagines marrying Anne Frank, has a one-night stand with Fidel Castro's mistress, and seriously entertains the idea of becoming a gynaecologist. Did I mention that these are very funny novels?

Not for nothing does one character call Zuckerman the "Marcel Proust of New Jersey". The ghost of Newark hangs over all the novels. Newark, the snarling phantom of an American dream that didn't make it out of the 1960s alive, changed from a proud manufacturing city into the "car theft capital of the world" - and in less than 20 years. The older that Zuckerman gets, the closer he orbits the city, drawn by irresistible filial gravity. Like Dickens's London or Joyce's Dublin, the names of Newark's long-lost streets and inhabitants cast a vivid spell over the Zuckerman novels. If Roth keeps Zuckerman more or less immune to bald nostalgia, he does a good job of instilling it in the reader. The First Ward, Weequahic High, Elizabeth Avenue, Chancellor Avenue, Market Street, the Empire Burlesque, First Fidelity Bank, East Orange . . . street by street, memory by memory, Roth seems intent on rebuilding Newark, a reverse riot of putting everything neatly back where it once belonged. But why?

Zuckerman grew up during the First World War, in a Jewish community enraptured with its new country and its opportunities. He asks: "Am I completely mistaken to think that living as well-born children in Renaissance Florence could not have held a candle to growing up within aromatic range of Tabachnik's pickle barrels?" Perhaps, but especially after the extent of Europe's madness was revealed, the Newark Jews were people who felt blessed to be living where they were, and they spent enormous energy trying to make that place better. The land of Hope and Opportunity. The Melting Pot. It's easy now to be cynical, to discount one community's success in the American experiment because others were being brutally held back. But these things, quaint-seeming now, were not quaint to the generation of Jews which included Zuckerman's father, largely uneducated men who bought into the American dream and through hard work actually saw a return on their investment.

Swarming with unrefined striving and Old World social mores, Newark was an intense, overbearing experience for the young Zuckerman. Like many of his generation, he felt more American than Jewish. So, at 16, he left. It's what the Jewish fathers had been unwittingly preparing their children for, part of the deal, the next step. Time for a new generation to create themselves in America's likeness. Then, in 1967, America came to visit Newark. One week of race riots, pillage and violence, and Zuckerman's father's dream of things only getting better, more sane and righteous, went up in the conflagrations of all they had worked so hard to establish. If everything from his childhood hadn't been destroyed, would Zuckerman have been so bound to it and the lost country it represented? Or, better question: can any outlook really survive the destruction of an ideal as potent as the visionary, immigrant America that Zuckerman grew up with?

If the political aspect of the first Zuckerman trilogy is the personal, the story of one man keeping his head above the crashing peculiarities of American historical life, then Roth's second Zuckerman trilogy, the so-called "American Trilogy" - American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000) - is a relentless excavation of three characters brought down by "the traps set for them by their era". Specifically, McCarthyism, Vietnam, the dogmatic, stinking underbelly of 1960s radicalism and, in the 1990s, the political correctness of "far and away the dumbest gen eration in American history", with Zuckerman stepping aside from his own story and standing aghast on America's sidelines, pen in hand.

Of Zuckerman's own life. we're given very little. He is now incontinent, impotent; he's ended his "relationship with the sexual caterwaul" and most other forms of human interaction. Like his old literary idol, the fictional E I Lonoff, Zuckerman is living in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts, deep in the "goyish wilderness of birds and trees where America began and long ago ended". (Except, unlike Lonoff, Zuckerman doesn't have a wife to bore him or an adoring student to show him her breasts. Nor does he seem miss either.)

Where, in the first Zuckerman trilogy, Vietnam, LBJ and Nixon are seen from the viewpoint of the educated opposition, The Human Stain brings us the seared mind of a Vietnam vet. Where in Zuckerman Unbound, Roth has a paranoid Zuckerman bumble through a country reeling from political assassinations, in American Pastoral we're confronted with the real deal, a radicalised 16-year-old girl who plants a bomb in a rural post office and blasts her decorous, liberal father "out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral - into the indigenous American berserk". Three books, three ferocious American tragedies, with Zuckerman, Roth's clear-eyed, elderly narrator, leading us through, revealing what history does to devour us all, no matter what. This felt like the last we'd hear from Zuckerman, maybe the last we'd need to.

Only a little over a year has passed since the critical and commercial triumph of Philip Roth's Everyman. A good novel, Everyman's success always seemed to me a bit like the director of Goodfellas and Raging Bull finally winning an Academy Award for The Departed. That is to say, at long last Roth has been canonised.

The events of Exit Ghost, which Zuckerman, as narrator, ruefully subtitles A Man in Diapers, is "a book about knowing where to go for your agony and then going there for it", occur in 2004, during the week of the re-election of George W Bush. Zuckerman is now 71 years old. "The vainglorious days of self-assertion" long since passed, our hero has "ceased to inhabit not just the great world but the present moment". He is also losing his mind.

The novel, Zuckerman confides to us in a gut-punch of an aside, "will likely be my last attempt to persist in groping for words to combine into the sentences and paragraphs of a book". He continues: "It's a matter not just of my no longer being able, after a day or two, to remember the details of the previous chapter but, improbably, of being unable, after only a few minutes, to remember much of the previous page." These meditations on age and the colossal inescapable loss of everything are the most striking qualities of the novel. But they are not unprecedented. Roth is a writer confounded by and brought to new heights by the poetry of extinction: be it the masterful passages in Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson concerning the deaths of Zuckerman's parents, or the stark and celebrated shorter novels such as The Dying Animal or Everyman.

Exit Ghost is a novel about Zuckerman's return and hasty retreat from everything he left behind eleven years before: NYC, sexual mania, literary intrigue and politics. Briefly forsaking his isolated life in the Berkshires for an operation to "inject a gelatinous form of collagen where the neck of the bladder meets the urethra" (Roth, as ever, delights in details, whether it's a urological operation to regain continence or the proper construction of gloves), he finds himself reading the New York Review of Books over dinner. If it's the gun in the first act of a Chekhov play that you've got to watch out for, in Roth's Zuckerman novels it's usually the cutlery. Has any novelist ever written about so many riotous or catastrophic dinners? No matter that Zuckerman is dining alone, it's supper time in a Roth novel, so you know the peril could be great. It is. Zuckerman sees an ad from a "writing couple" looking to swap their Upper West Side apartment for a "rural retreat one hundred miles from New York". And like that, he's out of his seat and on the phone, ready to see what life has left for him.

The "writing couple", Billy Davidoff and Jamie Logan, both in their early thirties, invite him to their apartment. They decide to do the swap and immediately Zuckerman becomes infatuated with Jamie. It's difficult for the reader to see why. Is it Roth's failure of characterisation or a symptom of Zuckerman's encroaching senility? Zuckerman does a lot of reiterating of mot ives throughout the novel, almost as if the rather-too-coincidental plot bothers him, too. Despite what you may have heard, Roth is generally a phenomenal writer of female characters, but Jamie Logan never rises above Zuckerman's own descriptions of her sweaters and turtlenecks, his elegiac desires, or Jamie's all-too-topical history as the daughter of old Houston oil money.

Literature, America, Zuckerman himself: every thing in the novel feels as if it is shuffling towards an ignoble end. Bush and 9/11 stalk Exit Ghost as Nixon and Vietnam did in earlier Zuckerman novels; and with Bush's 2004 victory, it's almost as if we get to witness Nathan Zuckerman and America falling into senile dementia at exactly the same time. It's no small detail that Jamie is leaving NYC because she doesn't "wish to be snuffed out in the name of Allah". This is not the country Zuckerman retired from 11 years ago.

So how good it initially feels to have our man back in the thick of things. But, it turns out, he's far more interested in Jamie's breasts than in Bush v Kerry. The country can go to hell, just let him be alive again! Here we're confronted with the painful and all-too-believable reality that the future is no longer of much interest to a childless old man nearing the end of his life. The breast as the first and last obsession. Still, it is as disappointing to the other characters in the novel as it is for the reader. What wouldn't we give for a wise, wrathful Zuckerman riff on George W Bush and the debacles of 21st-century America. Instead, we must content ourselves with one on cellphones, George Plimpton and the expensive clothing of a character whom Roth can't quite bring to life.

If Zuckerman's final go around sexual obsession were the only story in Exit Ghost, then the novel would be underwhelming. Luckily, that is far from all. Exit Ghost is not only a coda to the Zuckerman novels, but something of a bookend. After nearly 30 years, we're reintroduced to The Ghost Writer's Amy Bellette and the long-dead writer, E I "Manny" Lonoff. It is almost as if this isn't the eighth Zuckerman novel but a long - in-coming sequel to the first: they read beautifully together. In Exit Ghost we finally learn the actual history of Amy Bellette, the woman the young Zuckerman not only imagined marrying but of secretly being Anne Frank. We also find out what became of E I Lonoff, the once-revered writer whose life the elder Zuckerman's superficially resembles. In The Ghost Writer, a young Zuckerman told Lonoff: "When you admire a writer you become curious. You look for his secret. The clues to the puzzle." And so, nearly 50 years later, Zuckerman finds himself joined with Amy in battle against a young biographer who may be an extreme and unsubtle version of himself, and who seems to have found the secret at the heart of Lonoff's puzzle.

This is all very intriguing. But it is the meeting between the 71-year-old Zuckerman and the impoverished 75-year-old Amy, now in the last stages of her battle with a brain tumour and occasionally communing with Lonoff's ghost, that is one of the more moving and extraordinary chapters of the entire Zuckerman saga. The humour and pathos of these two characters, their heads full of so much leaking history and their futures more or less moot, is a rare, generous thing in contemporary literature.

If the characters in The Sopranos are always lying, to themselves and others, the characters who populate the Zuckerman novels are continually proclaiming the truth as they understand it. Loudly. Their truths come in gushing, literate monologues: all those forthright American voices clamouring to be heard. What would a Zuckerman novel be without it? What, in fact, for better or for worse, would America be without it? "But whatever the reason, the book of my life is a book of voices. When I ask myself how I arrived at where I am, the answer surprises me: 'Listening'," says Zuckerman in I Married a Communist. Tak en together, the Zuck erman novels read as both a noisy New Jersey Kaddish for 50 years of American history, and an extraordinary, contemporary "Song of Myself".

But in the end, the only voice remaining in Exit Ghost is Zuckerman's own. Strikingly, the novel ends with fiction, a Zuckerman-penned dialogue called "He and She". No room left for names, descriptions or the American mess existing just off the page; just two voices that are really one. It is an old man talking to himself. Zuckerman writes a re-enactment of his conversation with Jamie and for the first time in nine books it seems as if the whole sad, sick enterprise of writing is being exposed: the pathological retreat into the creation of the self, and of others. It feels pathetic at first, then scary. It's not that there's nothing else in the world, it's that there's nothing else for Zuckerman and probably never has been.

That is his world. And that, too, the reader knows, will be history once the last page of Zuck erman's final work is turned. It's a chilling finish. Leaving him there, dangling over the blank space, no more words to be written. Not the death of the novel, or the man, but the novelist. "Gone for good." And we're left hoping that the similarities between Philip Roth and his alter ego aren't nearly as pronounced as we've been led to believe.

Tod Wodicka's "All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well" is published by Jonathan Cape

A life in letters: the Zuckerman novels

My Life As a Man (1974):
The story of another of Roth’s novelist alter egos, Peter Tarnopol, whose alter ego happens to be . . . Nathan Zuckerman.

The Ghost Writer (1979):
Zuckerman narrates, looking back at his first taste of literary success: he recounts the night he spent at the house of his literary idol, E I Lonoff, imagines Lonoff’s assistant is Anne Frank, and has a glimpse at the cost of literary dedication.

Zuckerman Unbound (1981):
Zuckerman navigates success and the paranoid late 1960s, publishes a novel that gets him cursed as a “bastard” by his dying father, disowned by his brother, and into the bed of Fidel Castro’s mistress.

The Anatomy Lesson (1983):
Zuckerman, beset by a mysterious, debilitating pain and his “harem of Florence Nightingales”, decides to quit writing and become a doctor.

The Prague Orgy (1985):
Zuckerman visits communist Czechoslovakia in an attempt to retrieve a literary manuscript.A succinct, hilarious and potent meditation on freedom and literature.

The Counterlife (1986):
A library of mirrors where the lines of identity and the nature of fiction are explored and questioned through interlinking stories; a meta-fictional masterpiece.

The Facts: a Novelist’s Autobiography (1988):
Zuckerman appears in Roth’s autobiography in the form of a letter to his creator which ends the book. Obviously.

American Pastoral (1997):
A masterpiece of 20th-century literature: Zuckerman, now in his sixties, narrates the tragedy of Seymour “The Swede” Levov and his introduction to an America he never dreamed existed.

I Married a Communist (1998):
Zuckerman is told the story of the downfall of his old hero, Iron Rinn – a radio actor, Abraham Lincoln impersonator and card-carrying communist.

The Human Stain (2000):
Zuckerman gets involved in the story of another character destroyed by his times: Coleman Silk, classics professor and closeted African American. One of Roth’s greatest novels.

Exit Ghost (2007):
The final Zuckerman novel and the first since The Counterlife to feature Zuckerman, now 71 years old, as the central character.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Election fever