"The Humbling" by Philip Roth (2009)
"'Come inside,' he said.
"'Are you afraid of me?' he asked.
"'I've done something foolish for which I apologize. I've trespassed and I'm sorry. And now I'd like you to let me go.'
"'I'm not holding you. You have a way of trying to turn the moral tables on me. But I didn't invite you here in the first place.'
"'Then why do you want me to come inside? Because of the triumph it would be to sleep with the woman that Pegeen used to sleep with?'
"'I have no such ambition. I'm satisfied with things as they are. I was being polite. I could offer you a cup of coffee.'
"'No,' the dean said coldly. 'No, you want to fuck me.'
"'Is that what you want me to want?'
"'That is what you want.'
"The Humbling" is my second Philip Roth novel. I have also read "American Pastoral," for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1997. "American Pastoral" was work of brilliance, but it was also extremely depressing. "American Pastoral" sat on me for weeks.
"The Humbling" is another grim book, much in the vein of "American Pastoral." It details the sufferings of Simon Axler, former star of stage and screen who suddenly finds himself unable to perform. After a brief stay in a psychiatric facility, he seeks out the company of Pegeen Stapleford, a woman 15 years his junior.
The affair ends as you might expect, but Roth makes you hope for these characters. He makes them very real, and very immediate. You know their bid for domestic happiness is likely doomed, but you want to see them succeed anyway. There is a desperation in Simon Axler that is eminently human, and likewise a mercenary element in Pegeen that is nothing if not based in practicality. Their lives intersect briefly, they work their will upon one another, and are in turn left to plan new plans, and dream new dreams. That is if they haven't given up hope.
I would not question the simple fact that Philip Roth is one of the greatest American writers yet living, but I would question the fame he has enjoyed of late. Much of this fame seems generated by the Hollywood machine, and there is a certain mass-market, easily consumable element to his fame that I sometimes find offensive. He is without question a great writer, but I sometimes feel that he is overexposed.
Whatever the nature of the author's popularity, I encourage you to read "The Humbling." If you like this book, check out "American Pastoral." Be warned, however, that his books get HEAVY.