Charles Petzold

Autumn Reading: “Exit Ghost”

October 7, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

In Philip Roth's novella The Ghost Writer (1979), American novelist Nathan Zuckerman tells us a story that took place on December 9 and 10, 1956, when he was 23 years old. Four of his short stories had recently been published in literary magazines, and he has been invited to the home of E. I. Lonoff (then in his 50s and just five years before his death), the author who Zuckerman most reveres.

Zuckerman has brought some baggage to Lonoff's quiet house in the Berkshire's. He has recently drawn on some unsavory aspects of his own family history to write his most ambitious story yet. But it's a story his father believes should not be published, for it will simply reinforce all the anti-Semitic stereotypes held by the Gentiles. His father even brings to the story to Judge Leopold Wapter (who functions as a kind of secular Rabbi to the Zuckermans) who asks Nathan in a letter "Can you honestly say that there is anything in your short story that would not warm the heart of a Julius Streicher or a Joseph Goebbels?"

Nathan has not yet answered his father or Judge Wapter when he arrives at Lonoff's house. He meets the famed author and his wife Hope, and also Amy Bellette, a beautiful and mysterious woman a few years older than Nathan, a war refugee from Europe with an accent "from the country of Fetching." Amy is attempting to organize Lonoff's manuscripts in preparaton for them being contributed to the Harvard library. Yet, Nathan suspects something else is going on in the Lonoff household.

After an evening discussing literature with the master, Nathan is invited to spend the night on a bed in Lonoff's study. During a sleepless night he concocts an elaborate fantasy that Amy Bellette is actually the most famous Jewish writer of the twentieth century, and that by marrying her, he will redeem himself with his family. (In a ridiculous misreading, the Wikipedia entry of The Ghost Writer has a sentence that begins "In a remarkable sequence, the narrator suggests that Amy Bellette believes herself to be ...")

The Ghost Writer is a beautiful novella, and re-reading it is perhaps essential preparation for Philip Roth's apparent finale to the Zuckerman saga, Exit Ghost (2007), even if the contrast does incite a harsher reaction to the new book.

Exit Ghost takes place during the week in November 2004 that straddled the Presidential election. Nathan Zuckerman has been living quietly and alone in the Berkshires for eleven years. His recent prostate cancer and surgery has left him incontinent and impotent. He comes to New York City for a treatment involving injections of collagen that might help the former problem but not, alas, the latter.

Zuckerman's short frenzied visit to New York City touches off upheavals in his life and psyche that he can barely manage. He sees Amy Bellette again for the first time since that December morning 48 years ago. Half her head is shaven, and a long scar remains following removal of a brain tumor. Yet her voice remains as beguiling as ever.

Zuckerman picks up a "pre-election" issue of The New York Review of Books, and rashly decides to respond to an ad from a young writerly couple seeking to swap their Manhattan apartment for a country house for one year. He meets the 30ish couple Billy Davidoff and Jamie Logan. She's had a short story published in The New Yorker but wants to leave the city "because I don't wish to be snuffed out in the name of Allah."

Then Zuckerman gets a call at his hotel from one of Jamie's friends from Harvard, an ambitous would-be literary biographer named Richard Kliman ("climbing"?). Kliman is tackling a biography of E. I. Lonoff — an author everybody agrees nobody reads any more — and needs Zuckerman's help. Kliman think he's discovered a deep dark secret in Lonoff's past, a secret explored in the manuscript of Lonoff's unfinished and unpublished novel. Is Lonoff's novel autobiographical? Or has Lonoff used a plot device inspired by an equally unsubstantiated rumor about Nathaniel Hawthorne? (And can we ask the same question of Exit Ghost itself?)

Kliman is one of Roth's best creations, a large overbearing man who can turn in minutes from warm and beseeching to a maniac shouting at Zuckerman "You're dying, old man, you'll soon be dead! You smell of decay! You smell like death!" (p. 104) Because this is a first-person narrative, neither the reader nor Zuckerman know if it's Kliman who's fabricating meetings and arrangements with Zuckerman, or if Zuckerman's memory is really failing. The memory loss is what he fears most of all:

Zuckerman knows he must extricate himself from these crazy New Yorkers and get back to the quiet comfort of his house in the Berkshires, but his infatuation with Jamie won't let him. He wants her to leave her husband and come live with him the way Amy Bellette lived with Lonoff in the last five years of his life.

But Zuckerman knows it can't happen. He can't even entertain sexual fantasies about Jamie. When he tries to fantasize about her, all he can manage is a feeble "He" and "She" dialogue — perhaps the weakest aspect of Exit Ghost — of half-hearted literary flirtations and lost loves spanning nearly half a century of Nathan Zuckerman's life.