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The night before his second carotid artery surgery, the everyman is thinking of all the women who had waited for him after previous operations. His third wife Merete was present for the outcome of his quintuple bypass surgery, but recovering with her help was not the best experience. Maureen, the private nurse attending him at that time, sped up his recovery. After recovery he and Maureen embarked on an affair. Before this most recent surgery, he wanted Maureen to look after him again. He realizes that time has passed, and she is now middle-aged, while he too has aged dramatically. He tries to distract himself from thoughts of his mortality. He thinks of his first surgery. The everyman’s mother is present at the earliest operation he can remember, a hernia operation, and involves an alarming overnight stay in the hospital. While there, the everyman notices another boy next to him in the hospital ward, whose parents speak only in Yiddish. He becomes convinced that this boy is doomed to die. Once his parents go home, the everyman finds it difficult to read and sleep. Thinking of the boy next to him leads the everyman to think of the drowned body he had seen washed up on the beach near his family’s rental house. Eventually the everyman falls asleep but he is woken by doctors and nurses moving around the bed next to his. He is woken again early the next morning for the operation, and sees his mother there smiling at him, while the bed next to his is empty. He believes then that the boy had died, but his mother tells him the boy was moved to another floor. The everyman is carried on a gurney to the operating theatre.
The everyman thinks of a malaise that afflicted him after returning home from a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard with Phoebe, who had been his lover for two years. They enjoy the freedom of their days together, though the wild sea at night frightens the everyman. This is different from how the everyman had experienced the sea when he had served in the navy during the Korean War, and his fear catches him off guard. He tries his best to conceal it from Phoebe. He thinks about his own character, and judges himself a “square” (conventional and unadventurous). Instead of pursuing painting as a way of life, he lives according to his parents’ wishes, by marrying, having children and finding a safe advertising job. His marriage is difficult and he looks for a way out through the affair with Phoebe. He does not hate the idea of a conventional life, but needs to make the choice to abandon his wife and children to maintain his wellbeing. He tells himself not to worry about death until he is much older, since there will be plenty of time to do so then.
After the everyman returns to Manhattan after the trip to Martha’s Vineyard, he falls ill. Medically, nothing seems to be wrong with him. A psychoanalyst says that the source of the everyman’s illness lies in his envy of a recently-promoted colleague in the advertising agency, but the everyman disagrees with this idea. The everyman goes to medical doctors multiple times until the illness becomes so pronounced that he orders his doctor to admit him to the hospital. A surgeon at the hospital identifies a problem with the everyman’s appendix and he is operated on immediately. After the operation, the everyman is supported through the worst of his recovery by Phoebe and Howie. Phoebe explains that the everyman’s appendix had burst some time before, and that he is being treated for peritonitis. The everyman’s father had almost died from the same illness, and the everyman remembers his father’s weakness and long recovery. His father’s beloved youngest brother Sammy died of appendicitis at nineteen. The everyman is unsure whether he might die, like Sammy, or pull through, like his father. The everyman stays in the hospital for thirty days, being looked after by mostly conscientious, agreeable nurses with Irish accents. Phoebe comes after work to have dinner with him, and the everyman cannot imagine what his recovery would be like without her. He is determined to keep Phoebe in his life. The everyman looks out the window at the changing leaves on the trees outside, and complains to the surgeon that he is missing the fall of 1967, to which the surgeon responds that he had almost lost it all.
The everyman is dead, but the story continues, looking back on his life from the starting point of his final fatal operation. The narration, from this point, covers the totality of the everyman’s life in relation to the fact that it has ended. What links each vignette from the everyman’s life is association, so that the narrative weaves in and out of memories, sometimes departing one memory for an older, embedded childhood experience. In the second section, as the everyman lies in bed the night before his carotid artery surgery, he thinks back on the women who supported him through various operations and recoveries in his life. This thematic connection unites the next six or so sections, although there are other recurring elements at play such as nostalgia, the everyman’s relationship with his family, American-Jewish culture, and aging, illness, and the body.
The everyman, to distract himself from the forthcoming surgery, rates the quality of the women who supported him. His third wife Merete did not lift him out of his malaise, but his private nurse, Maureen, did. Maureen was able and willing to give the energy Merete could not. As we see throughout the novel, the everyman’s thoughts of women mostly concern their sexual, aesthetic, or supportive function in his life. Often his thoughts on women are connected to his awareness of his own declining bodily health or sexual energy. However, in the case of his first surgery, his mother was there to provide emotional support at every step, aside from the times when the everyman is sleeping or being operated upon. While the everyman’s father is also there, and provides stoic encouragement, it is the bond with his mother that stands out the most. Later, his second wife Phoebe proves herself to be calm and supportive. Phoebe’s understanding comes from her experiences of the pain of untreatable migraines. The everyman’s brother Howie has also been a source of comfort. It is Howie who proves to be one of the everyman’s most loyal supporters through the lonely journey of illness.
The everyman’s identity emerges from thematically linked observations. We learn about the everyman’s relationship with Judaism through his exposure to the visitors speaking Yiddish in front of their hospitalized son. The everyman remembers believing that they were too worried by their son’s condition to speak clearly in English. This leads to the everyman’s recollection of the diamond merchants speaking Yiddish with his father, and the time he attended a Hasidic wedding. The details of Hasidic dress and customs make him uneasy. This sets up the idea that the everyman considers himself completely Americanized and secular, and isolated from the language and cultural specifics of the previous generation. It is through the details of his father’s shop that the everyman remembers his childhood and his father. These observations lack moral judgement. Objects are considered with the same level of attention as people and their emotional responses. Thoughts or action outside of the everyman’s experience do not appear, since the narrative is guided by the flow of associations from the everyman’s life.
The ocean appears throughout these sections as a metaphor for the unknown. The everyman as a boy sees a dead sailor from a torpedoed ship washed up on the Jersey Shore. While on holiday with Phoebe, the wildness of the ocean at night frightens him, and in combination with the vastness of the night sky above it, symbolizes his own smallness and mortality. What is frightening about the ocean, and from this, oblivion, is its vastness, in comparison with the finite concrete nature of the human body. While the world of the everyman’s daily life is held steady by the continuity of his days, the ritual actions of his work, and his cyclical and continued obsession with various women’s bodies, the ocean symbolizes the opposite of these things – the unknowable, timeless void of the afterlife, which the everyman believes to be a termination of being and body alike.
The two things which separate the everyman from the routines of daily life and his family sphere are affairs and illness. Though one process is voluntary and the other involuntary, both are disruptive, and both tied to the image of the ocean. While he is in good health, the everyman can choose to swim, one of his hobbies. While ill, he is unable to go swimming. He is physically weak, unable to push his body against the force of the water. His first illness occurs after he returns from his holiday by the ocean with Phoebe, for whom he has left his first wife Cecelia, but the everyman does not view his illness as a curse or punishment for his infidelity. He sees adultery as something any average human being would have chosen to do to escape an unpleasant situation. Phoebe, like Maureen, provides comfort and distraction from the unsettling nature of sickness through her affection and vitality. While the everyman’s affairs are disruptive, they could be viewed as an action taken in part to combat the terminal disruption of death.