First edition cover
|Media type||Print (hardcover)|
|LC Class||PS3568.O855 E95 2007|
The plot centers on Zuckerman's return home to New York after eleven years in New England. The purpose of Zuckerman's journey, which he takes the week before the 2004 U.S. presidential election, is for him to undergo a medical procedure that might cure or reduce his incontinence. While in New York, Zuckerman meets Amy Bellette, whom he had last encountered during a visit to the writer E.I. Lonoff's house in December, 1956, as depicted in Roth's novel The Ghost Writer. Zuckerman also agrees to a housing swap with a young writing couple, Billy Davidoff and Jamie Logan, and quickly becomes attracted to Logan. In his hotel room at night, Zuckerman writes a play, He and She, composed of imagined conversations between him and Logan.
Through Davidoff and Logan, Zuckerman meets Richard Kliman, a young, brash Harvard graduate who is working on a biography of Lonoff. Kliman was Logan's boyfriend in college. Because of Kliman's zealous interest in a potentially scandalous secret from Lonoff's adolescence, neither Zuckerman nor Bellette wants to help him complete his project. Zuckerman may also be motivated by his own confused feelings about Logan and Kliman.
Although critics once considered that Lonoff, deceased and neglected, was modelled partly on the writer Bernard Malamud, he now seems to be based on a number of writers. Henry Roth is a major influence, as becomes clear in Exit Ghost. Roth's biographer is Steven G. Kellman. It is known that Philip Roth has read the later novels of Henry Roth, though some of these remain unpublished. The rationale for Henry Roth is that in his novels published after his death he reveals that he had an incestuous affair with his sister when he was young; it also known that Henry Roth suffered from writer's block for much of his career after publishing Call It Sleep, his only major novel. In Exit Ghost it is revealed that Lonoff also had an incestuous affair with his sister — which led to his writer's block — and the fact that while content to teach in oblivion, he never published again.
American politics forms a backdrop to the novel. Zuckerman, Davidoff and Logan watch the results of the 2004 presidential election together. Logan, whose father always voted Republican, was enraged and devastated by the results. The older Zuckerman, though not pleased, was more philosophical and was able to place the results into a more historical context.
The stage direction, "exit ghost" appears in three of William Shakespeare's plays: Hamlet, Macbeth and Julius Caesar. In a BBC interview, Roth stated that using this direction as a title "came to me because of Macbeth. Last year in the summer I was going to see a production of Macbeth here in America, and I re-read the script that afternoon, and I came upon the Banquo scene, ghost scene, and it just leaped out — 'exit ghost' — and that's the title of my book, so I just lifted it." In the novel Jamie and Billy read Macbeth aloud to each other, marveling grimly at its relevance to George W. Bush's first administration.
The title also refers to that of the first Zuckerman book, The Ghost Writer. At one point, Bellette says to Zuckerman that Lonoff (whom she imagines talking to her from beyond the grave) told her, "Reading/writing people, we are finished, we are ghosts witnessing the end of a literary era."
Critic Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times called the novel "elegiac" and "a kind of valedictory bookend to The Ghost Writer, adding "Mr. Roth has created a melancholy, if occasionally funny, meditation on aging, mortality, loneliness and the losses that come with the passage of time."
- Jordan, Justine (2006-12-30). "New voices and extra helpings". The Guardian. Retrieved 2007-07-16.
- Joshua Cohen, "A Life Torn Between Myth and Fact," The Forward, October 2, 2007
- "Philip Roth: In His Own Words". Front Row. 2007-10-02. BBC Radio 4. – a transcript adapted from this interview is available via the Wayback Machine at Philip Roth: In his own words - Independent Online Edition for 03 October 2007. Also available on this page are 2 brief essays:"The life of Roth" By Rob Sharp and "The other man: Nathan Zuckerman" By John Walsh
- Michiko Kakutani, "Seeking at Moral at the End of the Tale," The New York Times, October 2, 2007.