In The Dying Animal, Roth's professorial hero David Kepesh is now 62, and Kepesh doesn't like it one little bit. He is not content with having survived his metamorphosis into a 155-pound female breast that occurred in an earlier work, The Breast, or having engaged in rambunctious, threesome-style sexual escapades in The Professor of Desire. No, in this novel, Kepesh must now become obsessed with the breasts belonging to a twenty-something Cuban-American beauty, Consuela Castillo, who may or may not be an avatar of Modigliani's painting The Reclining Nude. Kepesh inevitably becomes obsessed with the rest of her body, not surprisingly to veteran Roth readers. Yet like Tantalus, Kepesh must suffer the excruciating fate of being possessed by an overwhelming thirst which can never be quenched. For Kepesh, his eternally unslaked thirst is for the female body, itself, a desire so mind-robbing in its intensity that at one point he actually drinks Consuela (I will not go into detail here). And though he is getting older, his awareness of the ever-receding waters of fulfilled desire seems more poignant and more lucid than it was in his youth.
Roth's slavish devotion to the sexual urge and his idolatry of the nude female body strike many dissonant chords, some more repetitively than others. Sometimes it is difficult to see his male protagonists as anything other than high-browed horny old goats who are possessed of incredibly smooth come-on lines and who demonstrate an unparalleled facility in finding and exploiting the chink in any woman's psychic armor so they can get laid.
Still other times, you can't help wondering if these guys are just pretentious blow-hards who embody the old adage `Those who can, do; those who cannot do, talk about it all the time.”
Of course, some would say that all writing is a type of seduction, with the author's self-validation predicated upon successfully wooing readers to feel this way or to do that thing. If that is the case, then Philip Roth is arguably the pre-eminent Bard of Booty in American fiction today, truly none better.
Yet Kepesh's goatish lust is at times so laughably predictable, his self-awareness so obnoxiously vain, and his elaborate self-explication so totally bogus, that I could not help wondering if Roth purposely offered Kepesh the role of an unreliable narrator, here. Like Robert Browning's monstrous Duke of Ferrara, the arrogant and cold-blooded art collector who talks about his Last Duchess `painted on the wall/Looking as if she were alive,” Roth's Kepesh offers a dramatic monologue that is so self-indulgent and yet so cold-bloodedly manipulative that it seems to underscore the author's own disillusionment with the way of all flesh. For example, Kepesh continually misapplies his considerable intellect towards the art/the hunt/the literary effort in capturing Consuela:
How do I capture Consuela? The thought is morally humiliating, yet there it is. I'm certainly not going to hold her by promising marriage, but how else can you hold a young woman at my age? What am I able to offer instead in this milk-and-honey society of free-market sex?
What Kepesh does offer Consuela—and even more unforgivably, what Consuela seems attracted to—is the very insecure, fleeting, doomed passion between extremes of age, temperament, and upbringing that seems to symbolize all erotic unions of flesh and blood: all too egomaniacal, all too brief, and all too soon turning into the bitter dust of mortality. For Roth, Cupid is always laughing because his arrows kill just as certainly as do those shot by Artemis or Apollo.
The Dying Animal offers Roth's usual superb and effortless commentary on the fate of desire in a culture that, to him, remains remarkably and damnably puritanical. Yet this book does not match the range or the depth of artistry and stunning human portraiture contained in his 2000 novel The Human Stain. I am inclined to say that this is a `man's book,” generally of interest to men forty and over, and particularly well-suited to those men who keep staring wistfully at Viagra advertisements. But I would not want to dissuade any woman from the experience of reading this extraordinarily well-crafted book and suddenly flinging it into a swimming pool in disgust while snarling `WHAT A PIG!” and then retrieving the soggy book to find out what happens at the end.
© Copyright 2001 by KNS Maré