It goes on, self-referential, filthy for the sake of filth, until finally, the septuagenarian Jewish writer pulls the literary equivalent of “jumping the shark,” dreaming of his interred mama back in Newark.Bullshit. Exit Ghost isn't about any of this. It's a book about cross-generation rivalry and one-upsmanship. Nathan Zuckerman has lived in isolation for 11 years. He returns to Manhattan and falls in with a couple 40 years younger than he is. They have literary ambitions but are fundamentally shallow -- they go by Billy and Jamie, highly un-Rothian names. Roth draws them slightly because they're slight people. Zuckerman begins a series of elaborate fantasies about Jamie, described in short theatrical dialogs. It's his last romance, a fantasy about being young again. There's no reason to think that his exchanges with Jamie are real, although most reviews appear to think so.
Zuckerman is an old man. Manhattan in 2004 isn't the same city that he used to know. He's irritated and confused by the constant swarm of cell phones -- there isn't anything so important to say that it can't wait. Roth's depiction of hysterical liberal breakdown in the city after Bush's reelection is intentionally shrill and overwrought; it's all anger and self-pity among spectators, an earnest political chic that we all practiced in the week after. Roth's depiction of it isn't meanspirited so much as mystified.
The real anger in this book is directed to young writers. Billy and Jamie seem destined to mediocre careers and intense self-regard. Another one of their contemporaries, Richard Kliman, is writing a biography of Zuckerman's mentor E.I. Lonoff. Kliman thinks that he's found a bombshell revelation about Lonoff, though it seems to be based on shaky inferences. Zuckerman determines to sabotage Kliman, who he fears as a threat to his work and integrity.
Zuckerman hates Kliman for his youth and health, but it's the arrogance and intrusion that infuriates him most. The young writers in his book all are painted as indulged, ladder-climbing careerists. There isn't any seriousness behind what they do. It's all resume-building. What he encounters in New York is worthless chatter masquerading as creativity.
This is the end of Nathan Zuckerman: a great career launched by a mentor who's been forgotten, wandering a city that doesn't belong to him, stuck fighting for literary integrity against a literary gnats who are looking to make names for themselves. The prostate-focused passages that drove reviewers to fits are just here for effect and metaphor. They're not the heart of the book.
True, there's a passage on mother-fucking and a puke-on-cock blowjob. That's to be expected in a Philip Roth book. It's been like this since Alexander Portnoy fucked a liver in 1969. Reading Philip Roth and whining about filth is like reading Harry Potter and complaining that there's no such thing as magic, which is why I don't read Harry Potter. The filth quotient of Exit Ghost doesn't rise to the level of The Dying Animal and isn't close to Sabbath's Theater, and readers who can't handle puke-on-cock should read Henry James.