When we first met David Kepesh way back in 1972, he had been transformed into a giant breast. Five years later he returned in The Professor of Desire, concerned with the grave of Kafka, his own continental woes, and the troubling propensity of sex to get in the way of relationships. In The Dying Animal, Kepesh is an old man, his sexual prime behind him. But there is always one last fling, and it is this he is remembering. The third and likely last book in the Kepesh series is a fitting conclusion to a character whose passion was passion, who lusted after lust and, when his life (or, more accurately, his penis) began to give way, realized that perhaps it wasn't all worth it in the end.
'Eight years ago', we are told, was when Kepesh met her. 'Her' is Consuela Castillo, a student from his university class, Practical Criticism. The class attracts a number of women, we are told, [b]ecause it's a subject with an alluring combination of intellectual glamour and journalistic glamour and because they've heard me on NPR reviewing books or seen me on Thirteen talking about culture. Kepesh is a breast man, and Consuela certainly appeals in that area. And she's big. She's a big woman. The silk blouse is unbuttoned to the third button, and so you see she has powerful, beautiful breasts. You see the cleavage immediately. And you see she knows it...she's aware of herself.
They begin an affair, which is par for the course for Kepesh. He uses his class as a means to seduce young women, both with his authority as their professor and due to his cultural knowledge and social access. Kepesh is a powerful, arrogant, intelligent man, and he knows it. Unfortunately, the women he seduces and this applies to Consuela as much as any of the others tend to be unformed, immature. They are bodies, receptacles for his lust and how could they not be? A girl in her early twenties has little, intellectually or emotionally, to offer a man forty years older. She has her body. Kepesh knows this and exploits it.
Roth uses this premise as a starting point to examine the sexual fallout that came from the revolution of the Sixties. Following the Pill, following bra-burning, following the sexual emancipation of young women, Kepesh (and many other men, it can be assumed) found themselves amidst a cornucopia of willing women. Sex before marriage became less a scandal and more the norm. It was expected it was what you did. These are the memories Kepesh has of the Sixties, and these memories form his methods for male-female interaction. He does not expect a brain for a woman; he expects a bust. Roth takes us on a tour of some of the historical forces that lead up to the Sixties, putting forth the idea that the Sixties was a necessary step in the evolution of America's mores.
The book sets out its primary themes early. Both involve sex, sexual interactions. The first regards the primal roar of lust compared with the social expectation of flirtation and a relationship. For Kepesh, sex is summed up:
in sex there no point of absolute stasis. There is no sexual equality and there can be no sexual equality, certainly not one where the allotments are equal, the male quotient and the female quotient in perfect balance. There's no way to negotiate metrically this wild thing. It's not fifty-fifty like a business transaction. It's the chaos of eros we're talking about, the radical destabilization that is its excitement. He rejects intellectually the aspects of sex he finds superfluous the attempt to delve into the other's personality, the sharing of intimate thoughts and details, the caring. These matter, yes, but not for the purely physical act of sex. Sex requires nothing more than two people coming together: it is the joining of body parts for pleasure, and perhaps for children. The rest of it the emotional aspect is not for him.
Until. Consuela attracts Kepesh with her large breasts, she keeps him interested because she is sexually available, but after they are finished he remains infatuated, even obsessed, with their time together. Consuela was different from the other girls partly because of who she was an assured, self-possessed, reasonably cultured Cuban woman but also because she was, for Kepesh, the true December-May romance, and perhaps the last. She represents an ending for him, of his lust and, to him, of his manhood. His obsession is such that he wanted everything she could give from her body, to her mind, to even her fluids. He debases himself in a desperate act to have it all, one last time, and Consuela can do nothing but flee.
Roth's handling of the subject matter is impeccable. His rendering of Kepesh is to make him less outraged than the previous novels, which is surely partly to do with Kepesh's (and Roth's) age. Rather than the fire of anger, there is the slow-burn of disquiet and indignation. Roth allows Kepesh to speak directly to the reader, writing the novel as though it were a one-sided conversation told by an articulate, intelligent man. He bares Kepesh's soul because that's all Kepesh has left to bare his body has long ceased to interest anyone. And, surprisingly, it is not titillation that forms the core of the work. Though there is a large amount of sex, and though the novel itself is primarily concerned with the sexual act between a man and a woman, the matter at its heart is the problem of growing old. Sex is a huge part of what it means to be an adult, and when it is gone, so is some part of one's self. Regrets are what you make of them, and Kepesh's regrets loom large.
A word on the ending. Roth, having followed his themes to their natural conclusion, spins the novel on its head by providing Consuela with the same problems that Kepesh has been dealing with. Suddenly it becomes not an old man who is struggling with the loss of his sexual body, but a young woman. Kepesh' tenderness is finally brought to the fore, and in a remarkable triumph by Roth, the novel becomes something beautiful, a book on sex transformed unexpectedly into a book on love. The Dying Animal is a fitting conclusion to a character compelled by the rage of lust throughout his life, and marks the beginning of a steady exploration into old age and death for Roth.