Nathan Zuckerman has been away for a while. As Exit Ghost opens, Philip Roth's longtime fictional stand-in has committed himself to a sojourn in the New England wilderness, away from politics, women, and all the other distractions that keep his focus away from writing. It's gone pretty well, too. Even a pair of kittens, the gift of a neighbor worried that Zuckerman will get too lonely, can't throw him off course. Fearing he'll come to love them, he sends them back. Who needs such things?

But distractions pile up quickly once Zuckerman returns to New York for a procedure to correct his humiliating inability to control his bladder. Almost as if led there by fate, he encounters the aged, cancer-stricken Amy Bellette, once the young lover of E.I. Lonoff, an early literary influence who's subsequently fallen into obscurity. Soon, Zuckerman is fending off the attentions of Richard Kliman, a young writer working on what promises to be a scandalous biography of Lonoff, and trading apartments with a young couple wanting to escape the city for a while. Some distractions can't be returned to the sender so easily.

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Bellette and Lonoff both figure prominently in The Ghost Writer, Roth's first Zuckerman novel. It's fitting that they should have a part in Exit Ghost, which according to Roth, is Zuckerman's final appearance. And finality hangs over the book, as it did with Roth's last novel, the short, sad Everyman. Exit Ghost, like its protagonist, also feels a bit overwhelmed. Set in 2004, it finds Zuckerman dealing with 9/11, the second George W. Bush election, the perils of biography, the impossibility of growing old gracefully, and what it feels like to watch your contemporaries die. (A long passage near the end recounts a memorial service for George Plimpton.)

It's a lot of business for a short novel, and what Zuckerman can't handle, the book leaves unfinished. As a man who feels his time has passed, he's allowed one last look at the things that have troubled him before he walks offstage. It isn't the most satisfying finale for such a long-lived character, but even if Roth is done with Zuckerman, there's little chance he's done with the subjects that obsess him. "Let the repellent in! That's your achievement," Kliman tells him in their final meeting. Roth's achievement doesn't boil down so easily, but it's heartening to see him facing final things with the unflinching candor that's long characterized his novels./p>