Author: Philip Roth
First published: 1981
Locale: New York City
Plot: Comic realism
Nathan Zuckerman, an American Jewish novelist who has to cope with fame following the publication of his first successful novel. The novel, titled Carnovsky, is based enough on Nathan's own experience that his family and friends become angry at his depiction of Jews in what they see as a peep-show atmosphere of perversion. The book has made Nathan both rich and famous, but he still struggles with the conflicts that result from the book's relationship to life, for he is taken to be the model of his lecherous protagonist Carnovsky, and his wife and family see themselves unflatteringly portrayed in his fiction.
Alvin Pepler, a former television quiz-show winner from a 1950's game show called Smart Money. He was caught up in the scandal that resulted when the show's producers persuaded him to lose so that a non-Jew, who had been given the answers, could win. Pepler is a former Marine, a nonstop talker, and an expert in trivia, with a photographic memory. As the novel progresses, he increasingly becomes Nathan's double, or “secret sharer.” Pepler “attaches” himself to Nathan, pesters him with talk about his own writing, and finally urges him to read his review of Nathan's own book. In its discussion of the complex relationship between life and art, the review reflects Nathan's own conflicts. Pepler argues that Nathan stole the character of Carnovsky from him, and that he, Pepler, is the model for Carnovsky.
Laura Zuckerman, Nathan's wife, a quiet and kind lawyer who aids and defends young men who escape the military draft by going to Canada. Nathan calls her a goody-good Pollyanna WASP who never says what is on her mind. Nathan no longer loves her and moves out after the publication of his novel, but he feels guilty that he does not love her.
Selma Zuckerman, Nathan's mother. She lives in Miami and is being threatened implicitly by an anonymous caller, who Nathan suspects is Alvin Pepler.
Caesara O'Shea, a glamorous film star from Ireland with a sad and seductive air. According to the gossip magazines, Nathan is dating her. Actually, Nathan met her only once, at a dinner party, and has spent one evening with her. She leaves Nathan to have an affair with Fidel Castro.
Victor Zuckerman, Nathan's father, a podiatrist who has been disappointed in Nathan because of what he sees as Nathan's demeaning depiction of Jews. Victor is in a nursing home suffering from the effects of a stroke. His last word to Nathan before he dies is “Bastard.”
Henry Zuckerman, Nathan's brother, a successful dentist. Nathan sees his brother as the tallest and most handsome of all the Zuckerman men. Because of Henry's kindly, gentle, and doctorly manner, all of his patients fall in love with him, and he falls in love with his patients. Henry accuses Nathan of killing his father with his best-selling book.
Essie Metz, Nathan's cousin, an elderly woman who lives across the hall from Nathan's mother. Essie tells Nathan about Alvin Pepler, whom the family knew when Nathan was younger.
Gilbert Carnovsky, the central character in Nathan's controversial best-seller, a double for Nathan himself.
André Schevitz, Nathan's literary agent. André's gallant continental manner, his silver hair, and his European accent have earned for him the appellation “the Headwaiter.” In addition to being an agent, he is an adviser, confessor, and hand-holder to Nathan and a stable of film stars and novelists.
Rosemary Ditson, an elderly retired schoolteacher who lives alone in a basement apartment next door to Nathan's wife, Laura. Laura looks after Rosemary, and Rosemary loves her. Rosemary hates Nathan for his treatment of Laura.