The Humbling, by Philip Roth, Vintage RRP£7.99, 160 pages
Famous actor Simon Axler suddenly loses his mojo and despairs of his “fluke” career. Hours after his wife abandons him, Axler bottles out of suicide and checks into a psychiatric hospital.
Recuperating hermit-like in upstate New York, Axler is sought out by Pegeen, the daughter of thespian friends and on the rebound after a hurtful lesbian relationship. Gamine, forward and 25 years Axler’s junior, she wants to experiment with men, and variety; Axler is wary, but besotted by the happiness she brings him.
Roth’s novella tears through their 13-month affair with insightful brevity. Axler’s intimacy with Pegeen and her turbulent history swiftly becomes a cyclone of risk and adventure, emotional rawness and vulnerability.
The Humbling is a stark triptych of breakdown, rehabilitation and outcome that reprises recent themes of loss, ageing and sexual potency. Roth’s acute sense of drama and dialogue leaves Axler “something awash with terror” while playing the role of his life.