The Smutty Professor


Asked in his old age if he was still capable of performing intercourse, Sophocles admitted that he’d “escaped the thing most gladly . . . like a slave escaped from a savage and furious master.” David Kepesh has not been so lucky. The Philip Roth character made his first appearance in a hallucinatory 1972 novella, on the eve of his transformation into a 155-pound female breast. Five years later, a sequel granted him the use of his limbs, but not control over his libido. And in The Dying Animal, which looks in on him in his old age, Kepesh finds that the demands of the flesh don’t slacken with the years—they constrict.

Today’s Kepesh has matured into a grand man of letters. He teaches a valedictory course in Practical Criticism, reviews books on NPR, and serves as cultural critic for Channel 13. But the intellectual interests are incidental to his favorite pursuit: “All this talk!” he says to himself in the midst of conversation. “Kafka, Velázquez . . . why does one do this? Well one has to do something. . . . The veils veil the blind drive.”

The drive, of course, is sex, and the something turns out to be students. Those who read Roth’s last novel, The Human Stain, will recognize some of its themes: sexual indiscretion in an academic setting, emotional entrapment, an ultimate tragedy. The Zuckerman series, however, widened as it progressed, bundling race, sex, politics, and the struggle to reconcile private life and public demands into a sweeping, visceral indictment of what Roth called “The American Berserk.” The Kepesh books have narrowed in focus, forcing America through the prism of his obsessive consciousness. The series finale is full of patriotic digressions: suburban sprawl (“where girls, safe from the dangers of the city, didn’t have to be kept under tight wraps”); the sexual revolution (an “amazing victory achieved in the sixties through the force of atrocious behavior”); and subsequent events (“The decades since the sixties have done a remarkable job of completing the sexual revolution. This is a generation of astonishing fellators”). But there isn’t a whole lot of variety to them.

The Dying Animal is told in hindsight, beginning in 1992, when the 62-year-old Kepesh seduced a beautiful Cuban American student named Consuela Castillo. Such seductions are nothing new for Kepesh, who beds a pupil at the end of every term. (“It’s like playing baseball with a bunch of twenty-year-olds,” he explains. “It isn’t that you feel twenty. . . . But at least you’re not sitting on the sidelines.”) But Consuela is not like other twentysomethings, and Kepesh is not as young as he’d like to be. “What do you do if you’re sixty-two and believe you’ll never have a claim on something so perfect again?” he asks himself. “What do you do if you’re sixty-two and the urge to take whatever is still takable couldn’t be stronger?”

The years have whittled him down to his essence, and Consuela brings it to the fore: In the end, Kepesh is like a salmon swum upstream, all sex and death. And his desire is so savage, and so instinctual, that he is overcome with an unprecedented jealousy he doesn’t know how to ward off. The more Kepesh fears Consuela’s loss, the more he yields to her, until he becomes “the author of her mastery of me.” Having submitted utterly, all Kepesh can do is wait for the inevitable end. When it comes, he is paralyzed by Consuela’s absence—the professor of desire has become a prisoner of sex.

Here the narrative leaves off, until, in a sad, ironic coda, Consuela pops up in the present tense. Kepesh is horrified to discover that flesh has undone her too, and drops his story almost mid sentence to comfort her. But what comfort can Kepesh provide? He hasn’t the depth of Mickey Sabbath or the scope of Nathan Zuckerman. The slightest of Roth’s creations, he acts with the least degree of agency and has no inner resource to fall back on. This is partly Roth’s point—Kepesh has always been a variation on Kafka’s helpless heroes, feeling his way through erotic bureaucracies and sexual trials—but watching him dragged in the wake of his own obsession, we feel a pity the author couldn’t have quite intended. Roth, we know, has stacked the cards, even to the point of denying Kepesh his past—the details of his sexual awakening and subsequent divorce don’t line up with what we’ve read in previous Kepesh books. He is a man with hardly any qualities.

Reviewing The Human Stain in The New Republic, James Wood likened its author to a man on a street corner with a sandwich board that reads “Human Beings Are Complex!” The Dying Animal drives toward simplification instead—the veils veil the blind drive. “Who are the new people when you do meet them?” an old lover asks Kepesh toward the end. “They’re the same old people in masks.” This is a strange position for Roth, who has authored some of the most memorable and unique characters in our literature, to stake out. Sexual obsessions exist and are invariably destructive, but in tracing all our actions back to a single, primordial drive, Roth glosses over real differences in human nature. His has always been a dark vision, but for the first time in years it rings a bit hollow.

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