Book review: The Humbling

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THE HUMBLING BY PHILIP ROTH Jonathan Cape, 160pp, £12.99

NOVELS about elderly men having initially energising but ultimately catastrophic affairs with much younger women have become a distinct new genre in recent years. Lots of notable writers have had a go at it, including JM Coetzee who, in Diary of a Bad Year, described his 72-year-old alter-ego "JC" becoming entangled with his 29-year-old secretary.

But the great specialist in this field is Philip Roth. In The Human Stain, 71-year-old Coleman Silk furiously has it away with a 34-year-old janitor. In The Dying Animal, David Kepesh, 70, becomes obsessed with 24-year-old Cuban student Consuela. Most recently, in Exit Ghost, Nathan Zuckerman, 71, impotent and incontinent after a prostate operation, still fantasises having an affair with an attractive 30-year-old writer.

Quite a few years ago, John Sutherland pointed out that the prime mover of this new line in fiction was a little blue pill. Coleman Silk said as much, saying he owed "all of this turbulence and happiness to Viagra ... Without Viagra I would have a picture of the world appropriate to my age and wholly different aims." Last year, reviewing David Lodge's minor contribution Deaf Sentences, it occurred to me that this whole buffer-babe genre could fairly be summarised as Exit Goat.

Now Roth has delivered yet another version of the story. Starry actor Simon Axler, 64, has lost his magic. He can't perform any more. His Prospero and Macbeth at the Kennedy Center were a disaster. He collapses into depression. His wife leaves him. Feeling suicidal, he goes into hospital for 26 days. There he contemplates "the frequency with which suicide enters into drama" and speaks of suicide as a carefully staged role you write for yourself – "but one performance only".

A year later, moping back at home in the country, his life is transformed when the daughter of old acting friends drives over and becomes his lover, on the spot. Pegeen, 40, has lived as a lesbian since she was 23 but has now decided she wants a man – him, Simon Axler, to the distress of her parents.

Axler buys Pegeen jewellery, lingerie, feminine clothes, five coats, a new haircut. They enjoy a full sex-life, despite his infirmity.

She straps on a leather harness so that she can wield a green rubber dildo. They fantasise about picking up a girl for a threesome. They find a woman in a bar and do it. Pegeen gets to work with the strap-on, becoming "a magical composite of shaman, acrobat and animal".

Axler feels rejuvenated, as determined as when he was 22. He plans to have surgery on his spine, to get back on the stage, to have a child with Pegeen. Without telling her, he goes to have his fertility assessed.

But two weeks after the threesome, Pegeen suddenly tells him: "This is the end." And it is. She walks out, just like that, saying she has made a mistake. He is destroyed. This time, Axler plays his role to its conclusion. Exit Axler.

So here is Roth's recurrent drama, asserting sexuality against ageing and mortality, played out again. But this time it feels oddly flat, compared to such raging works as Sabbath's Theater. There are books that don't merely not add to an author's reputation but take away from it. Alas, The Humbling comes close to that.

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