Zuckerman Unbound

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The sensationalizing sixties are coming to an end, and even writing a novel can make you a star. The writer Nathan Zuckerman publishes his fourth book, an aggressive, abrasive, and comically erotic novel entitled Carnovsky, and all at once he is on the cover of Life, one of the decade’s most notorious celebrities.

This is the same Nathan Zuckerman who in Philip Roth’s much praised The Ghost Writer was the dedicated young apprentice drawing sustenance from the great books and the integrity of their authors. Now in his mid-thirties, Zuckerman, a would-be recluse despite his fame, ventures out on the streets of Manhattan, and not only is he assumed to be his own fictional satyr, Gilbert Carnovsky (“Hey, you do all that stuff in that book?”), but he also finds himself the target of admirers, admonishers, advisers, and would-be literary critics. The recent murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., lead an unsettled Nathan Zuckerman to wonder if “target” may be more than a figure of speech.

Yet, streetcorner recognition and media notoriety are the least disturbing consequences of writing Carnovsky. Against his best interests, the newly renowned novelist retreats from his oldest friends, breaks his marriage to a virtuous woman, and damages, perhaps irreparably, his affectionate connection to his younger brother and his family. Even when finally he lives out the fantasies of his fans and enjoys an exhilarating night with the beautiful and worldly film star Caesara O’Shea (a rather more capable celebrity), he is dismayed the following morning by the caliber of the competition up in the erotic big leagues.

In some of Zuckerman Unbound’s funniest episodes Zuckerman endures the blandishments of another New Jersey boy who has briefly achieved his own moment of stardom. He is the broken and resentful fan Alvin Pepler, in the fifties a national celebrity on the TV quiz show “Smart Money.” Thrust back into obscurity when headlined scandals forced the quiz show off the air, Pepler now attaches himself to Zuckerman and won’t let go–an “Angel of Manic Delights” to the amused novelist (who momentarily sees him as his “pop self”), and yet also the likely source of a demonic threat.

But the surprise that fate finally delivers is more devilish than any cooked up by Alvin Pepler, or even by Zuckerman’s imagination. In the coronary-care unit of a Miami Hospital, Nathan’s father bestows upon his older son not a blessing but what seems to be a curse. And, in an astonishingly bitter final turn, a confrontation with his brother opens the way for the novelist’s deep and painful understanding of the deathblow that Carnovsky has dealt to his own past.

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