The story details (surprise!) the humbling of main character Simon Axler. Axler is the last of the great American stage actors who suddenly finds himself old and untalented. Axler is another Rothian simulacrum. There’s certainly no stretch in reading “stage actor” as “writer,” but Nathan Zuckerman he ain’t. The difference is that Axler comes off as a cipher in his own story. And to an extent that works in Roth’s favor. As an actor who suddenly can’t act, Axler discovers that he doesn’t have much personality to call his own. Rather than enduring his own unraveling first hand, he experiences it as an actor playing someone having a breakdown.
For a moment it feels like Axler has become hopelessly disconnected from his humanity, but it doesn’t take long to discover that the character is simply soulless. He gets depressed, mopes and checks into a mental institution for exactly 26 days. His wife leaves him, and then he engages in a disastrous affair with the lesbian daughter of an old friend. All in all a pretty eventful finale for the average sexagenarian, but Axler never takes up much of the page during his odyssey.
The majority of the other characters feel equally as lifeless as Axler, existing only to prop up the central character before making hasty exits into the oblivion of stage right. Fellow asylum resident Sybil exists only to humanize Axler, and his wife exists for a few scant sentences to add to the list of his miseries before disappearing. The only exception is Pegeen Mike, the simultaneously revitalizing and condemning catalyst around which Axler’s story revolves.
Pegeen treads a very fine line of offensive stereotypes. She is a 40-year-old lesbian who suddenly gives up women to be with Axler. Their sex life falls squarely into “dirty old man fantasy” territory including a ménage a trios and a green strap-on dildo that’s practically a walking, talking character. It would be easy to write Pegeen off, but there is some real depth to the character. When her long-time lover decides to leave her and become a man, the rejection drives Pegeen to Axler as a way to get even. Axler ultimately knows what the affair is and even muses “when she is strong and I am weak, the blow that’s dealt will be unbearable.” Pegeen allows herself to be spoiled and dolled up, but it’s all to service the mending of her bruised ego. Axler allows himself to give into the illusion, fantasizing about marriage, children and a possible return to acting even after Pegeen admits she is cheating on him with other women. This is where the story finally finds its footing—two thirds of the way in.
Somewhere in The Humbling is the sort of poignant, angst-ridden Roth novel we all know and love. However, in its brief 140 pages, Roth never gives the characters enough room to breathe. The book is divided into three chapters, or acts, given the theatrical motif. These first two “acts” really should have been expanded by about 200 pages, but instead Roth takes some literary shortcuts by just spelling out everything for the reader. We are told Axler was a great actor. We are told that he’s not anymore. We are told he has a wife and then that she left him. You have to wade through such dry exposition for most of the book before the real story ever begins. Philip Roth has long proved himself to be an excellent writer who is always worth your time, but he has 29 better books to choose from.
David Feltman is a frequent Birmingham Weekly contributor. Send your comments to email@example.com.