Roth’s latest ode to male twilight works quite well until it plunges into sex. After which it fornicates itself into embarrassment. Simon Axler, a burly and successful stage actor in his mid-60s, suffers a breakdown and can’t act. A stint in a mental facility doesn’t help much. Humbled, suicidal and dependent on his own self-loathing, he moves to a country house outside New York. There, he meets Pegeen, the daughter of old friends. Once, he saw her nursing. Now, she’s a 40-year-old lesbian suffering from an identity crisis that is far too vaguely sketched out. They begin an affair. Let the oral and anal games begin (“Yes, that’s it — squirt in her face”).
While early on Roth actually seems interested in probing the vicissitudes of talent lost (“You lose, you gain — it’s all caprice. The omnipotence of caprice.”) and in giving his morose Axler human girth, Pegeen’s introduction in a chapter called “The Transformation” sacrifices insight to voyeurism. Pegeen, “wielder of the cat-‘o-nine-tails and connoisseur of the dildo,” becomes a stand-in for Portnoy’s Mouse. Sexually, she’s “a magical composite of shaman, acrobat, and animal.”
But Axler’s “reclamation of exuberance” doesn’t last. As always, Roth’s deck is stacked. The humbled get reprieves, not rescues, after which comes rage and self-destruction. Sadly, “Papa Hemingway” Axler’s last act affords little wit even less wisdom.
Roth dealt honorably and elegantly with “the onslaught that is the end of life…” in 2006’s “Everyman.” This time, however, he cuts his losses. The final sound is Axler’s curtain, dropping. It couldn’t come too soon.