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Killing Them Softly

When Philip Roth's new novel was published by Houghton Mifflin last month, it was touted as "the last ordeal of Nathan Zuckerman," leading loyal readers to think mortal thoughts about the character who has figured in nine of the author's twenty-eight books. Then there is the title itself: Exit Ghost. Regardless of whether Zuckerman's demise is figurative or, well, literal, it seems Roth has added his name to a long list of writers, including John Updike and Richard Ford, who have bid farewell to their longstanding heroes.

Roth was almost twenty years into his career before he introduced readers to the character most critics regard as the writer's alter ego (Neil Klugman, David Kepesh, Alexander Portnoy, and other protagonists preceded him), and the introduction was a tentative one. A character named Nathan Zuckerman appeared in Roth's eighth book, My Life as a Man (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974), but, as the accumulating details of subsequent books would bear out, the Zuckerman of that novel wasn't the true Zuckerman. That character wouldn't emerge until five years later, as the young protagonist of The Ghost Writer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), just feeling his oats as a burgeoning writer and man.

Through Zuckerman's extended meditations in The Ghost Writer, Roth channeled an imaginative daring and linguistic brio that would become his trademark. Small wonder then that the author would return to Zuckerman again and again. Most notably, Zuckerman appears in The Counterlife (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986), the postmodern tour de force in which Roth imagines the dizzying complexities of Jewish identity in America, Israel, and England, and in his trilogy of postwar American lives: American Pastoral (Houghton Mifflin, 1997), I Married a Communist (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), and The Human Stain (Houghton Mifflin, 2000). Collectively the Zuckerman novels earned Roth a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and a PEN/Faulkner Award, among other literary prizes.

Seizing upon these successes, Houghton Mifflin conspicuously began subdividing the list of "Books by Philip Roth" it published in the prefatory pages of new works with the following designations: "Zuckerman Books," "Roth Books," "Kepesh Books," "Miscellany," and "Other Books." It was a curious (and not uncontroversial) move, as it privileged character as the central organizing principle of Roth's artistic imagination. That the list necessarily relegates such classic works as Goodbye, Columbus (Houghton Mifflin, 1959), Portnoy's Complaint (Random House, 1969), and Sabbath's Theater (Houghton Mifflin, 1995) to the "Other Books" category betrays the shakiness of the scaffolding, but on both editorial and marketing fronts it reflects the undeniable appeal of the Zuckerman novels.

All the same, Roth's familiar hero has had a rough run over the past few books. The young writer was full of vim and vigor in The Ghost Writer (Roth fans will remember the daybed scene), but the last time Zuckerman appeared, in The Human Stain, Roth had rendered him prematurely aged and impotent and incontinent from prostate surgery. In Exit Ghost, he is seventy-one and not doing much better. So it may be about time for Roth's hero to exit the stage. But how does an author say good-bye to his most successful protagonist?

James Fenimore Cooper offered Natty Bumppo, or "Hawkeye," the rugged trapper of the Leatherstocking Tales, a peaceful death. Introduced in The Pioneers (1823) and playing a pivotal role in The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Hawkeye lives long enough to participate in his young nation's westward migration over the Appalachians, but in The Prairie (1827), he finally succumbs to old age, amid the "glorious tints of an American sunset."

More than 160 years later, Updike sent his famous protagonist, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, to his grave in a less glorious fashion. Rabbit first appeared as a randy, twentysomething ex-jock in Rabbit, Run (Knopf, 1960). Reappearing in a new volume every ten years or so, Updike's everyman hero offers readers news on matters both public and private from the previous decade. In Rabbit at Rest (Knopf, 1990), however, Rabbit's affinity for beer and salty snack food finally catches up with him.

Even though the novel was touted as the final installment of his New Jersey trilogy, Richard Ford didn't kill his most popular protagonist, Frank Bascombe, in last year's The Lay of the Land (Knopf). Still, Ford's sportswriter-turned-real-estate-agent sure does spend a lot of that novel thinking about death. And more recently, the blogosphere was ablaze with anxiety over Harry Potter's fate after J. K. Rowling disclosed that the seventh volume in the popular series would be the last. (Even before Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published in July by Levine Books, the author hinted that several characters would die.)

Recurring protagonists are a convention of detective novels, and authors like Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler said good-bye to their familiar crime-solvers in different ways. Christie, worried that another writer might try to co-opt her most famous detective after her death, killed Hercule Poirot in Curtain (Dodd, Mead, 1975), which occasioned an obituary on the front page of the New York Times. Raymond Chandler didn't kill hard-boiled PI Philip Marlowe; he married him off in Poodle Springs, a novel that was left unfinished at the time of the author's death of pneumonia in 1959.

Arthur Conan Doyle, having grown tired of his beloved protagonist, tried his darnedest to kill Sherlock Holmes by sending him off a cliff in the short story "The Final Problem." ("It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts by which my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes was distinguished," begins the story, which was published in 1893.) Ten years later, in acquiescence to his unhappy publisher and angry crowds of readers—who had rioted in the London streets—Doyle revived his famous character in "The Empty House."

In the end, what matters is not so much how authors say farewell to their protagonists, but the godlike power of the choice itself. In The Counterlife, Roth kills and revives numerous characters—including Zuckerman—with abandon. Such resuscitation doesn't even require an experimental turn: The author can just turn back the clock. Faulkner's Quentin Compson drowns himself in The Sound and the Fury (Cape and Smith, 1929), but that didn't keep Faulkner from reimagining the character in later work, including his masterpiece, Absalom, Absalom! (Random House, 1936). And Cooper, after killing Hawkeye in The Prairie—and following a string of unsuccessful literary efforts—returned to his trapper in the prequels The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841).

All of which should offer succor to those who have grown attached to Zuckerman. Elegiac in tone, Exit Ghost appears to be the character's last gasp—but the author, of course, could always change his mind. Perhaps someday the prolific Roth will revive his familiar hero for a new novel, Zuckerman: The Middle School Years.

Andrew Furman is chair of the Department of English at Florida Atlantic University and the author, most recently, of the novel Alligators May Be Present (Terrace Books, 2005).

“In the end, what matters is not so much how authors say farewell to their protagonists, but the godlike power of the choice itself.”

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