By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 26, 2007
The PEN/Faulkner Foundation will announce today that Philip Roth has won its 2007 award for fiction for his novel "Everyman" -- making Roth the first writer to receive the award three times. He won in 1994 for "Operation Shylock" and in 2001 for "The Human Stain."
Roth's novel tells the story of the physical decline and death of its unnamed protagonist. "What hit me so hard about 'Everyman' was its intensity, and its systematic, pitiless stripping away of false comforts -- and then real comforts," said David Gates, one of the three writers who served as judges. "The only comfort for the reader is that Roth has faced such terrifying truths absolutely straight, and made even this devastating material into a thing of beauty."
At 73, Roth is one of the most honored writers alive: He has won all the major American fiction awards, several of them more than once. This didn't stop him from being happy about his latest one.
"I'm delighted," he said in a telephone interview. The PEN/Faulkner is a gratifying award, he said, because over the years "there just seems to be a consistency to the quality of the winners."
The other four finalists are all being honored for collections of short fiction. They are:
· Edward P. Jones for "All Aunt Hagar's Children," the Washington writer's follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2003 novel, "The Known World."
· Amy Hempel for "The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel."
· Deborah Eisenberg for "Twilight of the Superheroes."
· Charles D'Ambrosio for "The Dead Fish Museum."
Roth will receive $15,000, the other finalists get $5,000 each. They will be honored May 12 at a ceremony at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
All three judges -- the others were Debra Magpie Earling and John Dufresne -- are the authors of stories as well as novels, but the fact that the shorter form dominated the list of finalists wasn't a conscious decision.
"We all realized at the same time that we'd picked all these short stories," Dufresne said.
Conscious or not, however, both he and Earling thought the emphasis might be a good thing. "We just don't hear that much about short-story collections," Earling said. Yet a work like Jones's "In the Blink of God's Eye" -- which opens "All Aunt Hagar's Children" -- is "so rich in history, so rich in scope," that the term "short story" doesn't adequately convey the reading experience it offers.
"Maybe there should be another word," Earling said.
"Maybe this will be an alert to publishers," Dufresne said.
Or maybe not. Publishers, he explained, will tell you that story collections don't sell, and "I'm sure they're right."
As for the novel that won: "Everyman," at 182 small-format pages, isn't far in length from "Goodbye, Columbus," the novella that made Roth's reputation in 1959. But its author has the radically different perspective that comes with age.
"In the couple of years before 'Everyman' was written, I had been to the funerals of about four close friends," Roth said. With illness and death much on his mind, he came back from Saul Bellow's funeral in the spring of 2005 "and began writing."
His idea was to build a narrative around a man's illnesses: to see them not as isolated events "but as the trajectory carrying you to the end of life." In a 60- or 70-page first draft, he dealt only with his protagonist's illnesses, which begin with a childhood hernia operation and end with the heart disease that finally kills him.
Then he asked himself: "Who did this happen to?"
The portrait that emerged was of a man defined by his relationships -- as a father, a lover, a husband, a son, a friend -- and, increasingly, by their loss. As he ages, he loses most of the connections that mattered to him, including a much loved second wife who repudiates him after he indulges in an ill-considered affair.
"She was, he realized, the best thing in his life, and he took a great gamble, and he lost," Roth said, sounding like a man who knows this territory firsthand.
As people grow older, of course, concern with mortality increases. "Over 60 seems to be the trigger," Roth said. "If they're not thinking about death, they're measuring": How many years do they have left, and "are they going to be good years?"
For Roth's protagonist, the answer to this second question is no. In addition to his fraying human bonds, he lost his vocation when he retired as an art director for an advertising agency, and this loss has proved difficult to bear.
Roth seems intent on hanging on to his own vocation as long as possible. He has finished his next book, "Exit Ghost," to be published this fall; it will feature Nathan Zuckerman, the Roth-like novelist to whom he has returned again and again. And he's already a hundred pages into his next project.
"Few writers retire," Roth said. That's the good news.
The bad news is that their work often weakens as they age. Roth thinks this relates to short-term memory loss. "You have to remember the last page you wrote" and what you were thinking as you wrote it, he explained. Thus as your memory goes, you "feel it as a true deficit, an impediment to work."
Luckily, said the three-time PEN/Faulkner winner, this hasn't happened to him yet.
" 'Yet' with a capital Y," he added.