Zuckerman wrestles with past

Novel | Exit Ghost by Philip Roth, Houghton Mifflin, $26, 292 pages

Poor, weary Zuckerman. He's had quite the task all these years, being the doppelganger Philip Roth could either herald or kick around, taking the heat as he has for his creator's every whim. Forget the old conundrum of autobiography-as-fiction: Nathan Zuckerman, Jewish writer with the same fact sheet as Roth, has always been the petri dish for Roth's imagination. The two are soul-linked and inextricable, Roth the bricklayer of the house where Zuckerman lives. The man has had his run, starring in several of the finest, from the early Zuckerman books ("Zuckerman Unbound," "The Anatomy Lesson") to the recent trilogy that began with "American Pastoral." In his most recent appearance, "The Human Stain," Zuckerman was slow-dancing on the porch of his house in the Berkshires -- he was aging and had fled New York for solitary peace of mind, and the unstoppable élan vital was suggesting it might be mortal after all.

So here is Zuckerman's exit sign: a necessary book, in the scheme of things, but not a very gratifying one, unless perhaps for its creator. It rants and struts its fair share. But the tale itself is a desultory affair, a weeklong trip back to New York, where the past is waiting for Zuckerman. He's 71, a survivor of prostate cancer, the surgeons who saved him having left him incontinent and impotent but no less able to bank his fires. He has returned to Manhattan for the first time in 11 years to see whether a urologist can give him back a bit of his pride, and the New York he remembers is gone -- now it's a nation-state of cell phones and gentrification and post-9/11 fear, and a lot of the people Zuckerman knew and loved have died or fled or disappeared. He has a chance sighting of a woman he knew decades ago: the once-enchanting Amy Bellette, now wandering about in a hospital gown with half her head shaved. An ad for a house swap speaks to him: Two young writers on the Upper West Side want to trade their digs for a New England retreat. Somehow the brain-addled Amy and the New York Review ad conspire; the city is calling him back. He answers the ad, and one half of the writerly couple turns out to be a leggy, 30-year-old Texas oil baroness named Jamie Logan. Zuckerman bewitched.

"Exit Ghost" unfolds over election week in 2004, and takes some of its cues and diatribes from the war in Iraq and the Bush re-election, with Jamie and Billy Davidoff, her husband, bearing their young outrage next to Zuckerman's weary experience -- what he loves about the Berkshires, its lonely swims and lack of passionate convictions, is that it has allowed him to "shed the tyranny of my intensity."

The brooding, madcap subplot to these desirous trails involves a biographical project of E.I. Lonoff, Amy's long-dead lover and the writer whom Zuckerman adored. A friend of Jamie and Billy's, a young troublemaker named Richard Kliman, contacts Zuckerman -- Kliman is as virile and aggressive as Zuckerman ever was, and so the contact between them is like two silverbacks fighting it out on the savanna. Zuckerman loathes Kliman, but he remembers what it was like to have all that power and bluster posing as moral sensibility. Much of the drama takes place in Zuckerman's (not always compos mentis) mind, providing a stage for his passions and his rages. There's a long, baffling eulogy to George Plimpton, more than a few dark moments on the grave that awaits, and one brilliant little shell game about truth, lies, literature and memory. And in between all these thoughts and tirades and fiascoes is Jamie -- or Zuckerman's idea of Jamie. This little cat-and-mouse love game is reminiscent of Roth's "Deception," his 1990 all-dialogue novel, and it's a soliloquy of lust and adoration that feels tedious and silly. "This is a startling turn of events and not necessarily in my interest," Zuckerman's He awkwardly tells She. "I want to be under your spell." Good grief.

Roth allows Zuckerman a last laugh, a farcical flight-or-fight that testifies, once again, to "the primacy of the imaginative life." As a half-realized exercise in describing "the tremendous arc of heartbreak" that is much of life, "Exit Ghost" gets its place on the shelf at the end of the Zuckerman novels. Zuckerman, in the half-light of a snow-dusted November morning, has a glimpse of his own sweet repose.