Philip Roth’s latest protagonist is not one of his self-conscious writer-heroes, like Nathan Zuckerman or Peter Tarnopol, who spend their lives turning sentences around and contemplating the equation between life and art. No, he’s a simple Newark gym teacher who in the summer of 1944 is supervising the neighborhood playground, watching the boys play ball and the girls jump rope. In Mr. Roth’s new novel, “Nemesis,” it’s the summer when a polio epidemic sweeps through the city, spreading anxiety and suspicion.
Like his 2008 book, “Indignation,” “Nemesis” is a modest undertaking: a small-scale portrait of an era and of an earnest young man who finds the unstoppable engine of history steamrolling over his life. In this case, Bucky Cantor, 23, is one of the neighborhood’s few young men who aren’t off fighting the war; although he wanted to enlist along with his two best friends, he was rejected by all the services because of his terrible eyesight. The sense of duty instilled in him by his grandfather has made him feel guilty about not being able to serve his country. He feels “ashamed to be seen in civilian clothes, ashamed when he watched the newsreels of the war at the movies.”
Still, as Mr. Roth’s narrator recalls, Bucky is venerated by the neighborhood boys as “the most exemplary and revered authority we knew, a young man of convictions, easygoing, kind, fair-minded, thoughtful, stable, gentle, vigorous, muscular — a comrade and leader both.” The boys admire Bucky’s athletic skills, and they look up to him as a role model — especially after he faces down a gang of menacing teenagers.
Bucky resembles Marcus, the hero of “Indignation,” in that he’s the very paradigm of niceness. He is not torn, as so many Roth heroes famously are, between responsibility and transgression, tradition and rebellion. He doesn’t even have a sense of humor — doesn’t engage in irony or sarcasm, and rarely speaks in jest. Whereas “Portnoy’s Complaint” was an outrageously comic tale about the throwing off of duty, “Nemesis” is a pleasantly told parable about the embrace of conscience — and what its suffocating, life-denying consequences can be.
That Bucky is such a one-dimensional character makes for a pallid, predictable story line in which the random workings of fate and the fate of temperament — rather than genuine free choice — are the narrative drivers. It’s all a bit by the numbers, though Mr. Roth executes Bucky’s story with professionalism and lots of granular period detail.
As he did in “The Plot Against America” (2004) — a novel with much bigger ambitions and a sweeping historical canvas — Mr. Roth conjures up World War II-era Newark and a Jewish neighborhood, where the routines of daily life are suddenly ruptured by fear. This time it’s not anti-Semitism that’s arrived, but polio, which has abruptly stricken two boys from the playground: Herbie Steinmark, a “chubby, clumsy, amiable eighth grader who, because of his athletic ineptness, was usually assigned to play right field and bat last,” and Alan Michaels, another eighth grader, who “was among the two or three best athletes” and “the boy who’d grown closest to Mr. Cantor.”Continue reading the main story
Philip Roth’s Nemesis is a taut, tense morality tale set amid a fictional polio epidemic in 1940s Newark, New Jersey, and a summer camp in the Pocono Mountains. Eschewing the humor and ribald sexuality of early Roth novels as well as the obsession with death found in the author’s more recent works, Nemesis focuses on the connections between ethics, mass fear, and belief.
As the book opens, Newark is suffering from a sudden breakout of polio, a paralyzing viral disease prevalent among infants and children. It is summer 1944, and the action centers in a playground in Weequahic, a Jewish neighborhood. The playground’s director, twenty-three-year-old Bucky Cantor, wants to keep panic at bay by keeping the children active and carefree.
Although the polio virus has not yet infiltrated Weequahic, everyone senses that danger and death lie right around the corner. A large part of this fear stems from ignorance: in 1944 polio is a mysterious ailment, and no one really knows what causes it. Therefore a variety of possible agents are blamed: flies, human contact, excessive heat. When youths from an Italian neighborhood hit hard by the epidemic show up at the playground and spit on the pavement as a provocation, Mr. Cantor acts as the Jewish children’s protector. He stands up to the Italians and forces them to leave, and then he makes sure the spit is cleaned up with hot water and ammonium.
A few days after the confrontation with the Italians, two boys who were at the playground that day come down with polio. The shock of the senseless suffering and eventual death of the boys begins to wear on Mr. Cantor. As more boys from the playground come down with polio and the number of boys playing baseball each weekday dwindles from ninety to around thirty, Mr. Cantor begins to question all that he believes in. He attends the funerals of the boys and attempts to console their parents. Privately he questions a God who could allow innocent children to suffer and die. He wonders if the playground should be shut down to stop the spread of the contagion and if he is doing the right thing by encouraging the boys to go on as if nothing is the matter.
Mr. Cantor’s girlfriend, Marcia, is away working at a summer camp in the Poconos. During one of their nightly phone calls, Marcia tells Mr. Cantor of an opening at her camp and asks him to take the job and join her. Mr. Cantor refuses because he feels that he could not, in good conscience, leave the boys at the playground and shirk his responsibility as director. The next night Mr. Cantor visits Marcia’s father, a respected doctor whose family lives in a nicer part of town than Mr. Cantor’s. Mr. Cantor confesses his doubts and fears to Dr. Steinberg—that the Italians were the ones who spread polio to Weequahic and...
(The entire section is 1140 words.)