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Older Men Face New Challenges

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By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Where are role models in popular culture for the aging male? Health statistics are improving for men: They're living longer, and older men are more numerous. But as they come to this unexplored territory of expanded life spans, they confront a new challenge of identity: Who am I now that my role as the bull male is over?

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At least that is the question addressed by a trio of aging novelists who have chronicled the psyche and sexual habits of the American male from adolescence onward.

In "Exit Ghost" by Philip Roth, the hero is incontinent and impotent after prostate surgery, "a taunted old man dying to be whole again." In "Villages" by John Updike, the hero protests that "his heart still beats and his prostate gland is still intact," but not his desire, and sex "must compete with his senile desire to sleep." In "Lay of the Land" by Richard Ford, the hero, whose prostate cancer is being treated with radioactive pellets, talks about this stage of life as the "Permanent Period" that comes after an action-filled adulthood.

What use to society is a despairing old man "with a spigot of wrinkled flesh" between his legs, as Roth's hero puts it? He is inevitably overtaken in the competitive marketplace by a "hulking, muscular figure" of the younger bull male with his "outsized boy's energy and smug self-certainty."

These giants of lusty fiction bring a raw honesty to the conundrum of aging: You have more years to live but more losses to endure. Men of a certain age are no longer what they were. Roth's hero, for instance, describes meeting a young, beautiful woman, "rousing the virility in me again, the virility of mind and spirit and desire and intention. . . . It's all called back -- the virile man called back to life!"

But not so. The loss of vigor, the vigor of the past, is permanent. As Roth's hero quickly warns the reader: "There is no virility. There is only the brevity of expectations." Are we really "no country for old men"?

This bleak landscape of aging is so at odds with the peppy commercials for Viagra and retirement cruises. But out of the bleakness, each novelist begins to answer the fundamental questions of aging: How does a man overcome the loss of power and social dominance in a culture obsessed with youth? What are the essentials to make old age a rich and rewarding period?

For Roth's hero, it is dedication to work, a faithful commitment to his life's purpose -- in his case, writing, where he benefits from ever-expanding powers of imagination and a large library of experience. The book ends as he sits down to write the final scene.

A man in full knows the importance of meaningful activity.

For Updike's hero, it is the gathering up of the past through creative memory to bring together the multiple, disparate, secretive chapters into one cohesive story of a long life. In his dreams, all the women he has known morph into "a generic oneiric wife-figure."

To reach a state of contentment requires life review to sort out the disorder of the past and get whole.

For Ford's hero, it is hanging on to the life force, which is much more powerful than any particular body part. On a November morning, he walks out on the beach barefoot, the wet sand sticking to the bottoms of his feet, a wave closing around his ankles "like a grasp." He stands there, awakened, alert, and thinks to himself: "Here is necessity. Here is the extra beat -- to live, to live, to live it out."

Making the most of these years depends on a strong will to live.

None of these fictional heroes is a poster child for aging wisely or gracefully. But they may prompt a public conversation on what it's like today for a man to grow old. Their list of ways to cope is not complete.

At the same time, all three authors hint at the potential of living longer in the power of their writing. Compared with earlier works, these novels are deeper, bolder, rich in language and insight about the human condition -- perhaps like old age itself.

As a society, we're just beginning to develop cultural role models for the wise elder in a population that is rapidly aging. It's part of our legacy to future generations -- to let them know what to expect when they're expecting to live to 100.

Comments:mytime@washpost.com.


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