David Kepesh is a breast man. When author Philip Roth first introduced us to him in the 1973 novella The Breast, the 38-year-old professor of comparative literature was the victim of a Kafkaesque medical anomaly that resulted in his metamorphosis into a 155-pound mammary gland. Kepesh reappeared in 1977 as the oversexed narrator and protagonist of The Professor of Desire, one of Roth’s richest novels. A sort of expanded prequel to The Breast, The Professor of Desire concludes with Kepesh fearful of unnamed “transformations yet to come.” And now, a quarter of a century later, David Kepesh has again returned—older if no less libidinous—in a forceful new novella, The Dying Animal.
Having begun the Kepesh trilogy on a note of macabre existential fantasy, Roth completes the journey firmly in the realist tradition. The synecdochic fixation on the female bosom nonetheless remains a central metaphor. The Dying Animal achieves a startling level of poignancy when one of Kepesh’s former students and lovers arrives at the professor’s apartment on New Year’s Eve of 1999 to tearfully announce that she has been diagnosed with breast cancer. The revelation transpires during the last fifty or so pages of this brief 156-page book. “In every calm and reasonable person,” Kepesh mourns, “there is a hidden second person scared witless about death.” The climactic scene is rendered with such artful compassion that it overturns our hardening perceptions toward the character of Kepesh, who is otherwise portrayed as one of Roth’s unapologetic mixes of brainy sophisticate and borderline sexual predator.
As an aging roue Kepesh has grown impatient with the time-consuming social conventions of seduction. “The French art of being flirtatious is of no interest to me,” he declares. The only thing that matters is gratifying “the savage urge.” He bluntly muses, “Do men find women so enchanting once the sex is taken out?” Employing a strategy that the author used to brilliant effect with the satyric puppeteer Mickey Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater, Roth all but dares us not to be outraged by Kepesh’s comments and behavior. Each school year he targets a sexual prospect from among his female students:
They come to my first class, and I know almost immediately which is the girl for me. There is a Mark Twain story in which he runs from a bull, and the bull looks up to him when he’s hiding in a tree, and the bull thinks, “You are my meat, sir.” Well, that “sir” is transformed into “young lady” when I see them in class.
If equating college women with “meat” isn’t enough to qualify Kepesh as a pig, Roth pushes the character over the line with a shocking scene of rough sex that will doubtless offend some readers.
Nothing about The Dying Animal seems narratively gratuitous or exploitative, however. Roth is playing a high-stakes poker game with his thematic material. The point as stated by Kepesh is not necessarily profound—nor new to Roth’s fiction—but it is eternally sobering: “No matter how much you know, no matter how much you think, no matter how much you plot and you connive and you plan, you’re not superior to sex.” We can no more escape the lineaments of lust than we can escape death. One of the strongest scenes is a vivid illustration of desire’s primal grip upon even our ravaged and decaying bodies. Momentarily awakening from a coma after a stroke, Kepesh’s 55-year-old colleague George O’Hearn begins mutely and frantically embracing and kissing everyone in the room. “He didn’t die for another twelve hours,” Kepesh informs us, but “we all knew that what we had witnessed was the last amazing act of George’s life.” The book’s title, taken from Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” comes clearly into focus: “Consume my heart away; sick with desire/ And fastened to a dying animal…”
Those who have accused Roth of objectifying women or, worse, outright misogyny (a charge that has trailed other male writers of Roth’s generation such as John Updike, Saul Bellow, and Norman Mailer) will likely find nothing to change their view here. It probably doesn’t help that the novella’s two prominent female characters—the caramel-skinned young Cuban emigre Consuela Castillo and the middle-aged American businesswoman Carolyn Lyons—are seen exclusively through the eyes of a hardcore sensualist like David Kepesh. After all, Kepesh is a 1960s survivor for whom the greatest legacy of the free-love era is today’s liberated female students, whom he gleefully classes as “an astonishing generation of fellators.” While not composed on the same grand canvas as the celebrated volumes in Roth’s recently completed “American Trilogy” (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain), The Dying Animal is a provocative small-scale work from an author working at the top of his form.
– Bob Wake