Friday, November 22, 2013


Chance plays as big a role in my reading decisions as anything else. I recently went to the library with the explicit intention to check out The Unknowns by Gabriel Roth. And, while sifting through the "FIC-ROT" section, I of course came across a trove of Philip Roth books. I like Roth, and had read good things about Nemesis, so I snaffled that book as well in my most recent visit.

I can hardly claim to be a Roth expert, having only read perhaps a half-dozen entries from his voluminous output, but I have read enough to be really impressed at the variety of his writing. Which I suppose shouldn't be surprising... it would probably be more shocking if a non-genre writer managed to keep doing the same thing for more than fifty years without changing his or her style. Still, I'm regularly impressed at just how assuredly and confidently he can write any of these stories, making it feel as though he's been practicing that particular style for decades.

Nemesis is one of his latest books, but if I didn't know that, I might think it was one of his first. The story structure is more straightforward than in books like The Counterlife, and the writing is fairly direct, with less of the intricacy I remember from entries like American Pastoral. Of course, simpler doesn't mean worse, and while there are only a few themes in this book they are very powerfully explored. I'm left with a few very strong, gripping images, rather than the sometimes-bewildering array of memories after reading Roth's more complex stories.

In some ways, this book reminds me a little of The Plot Against America: the circa-WWII setting, with a focus on New Jersey, along with a highly readable and gripping prose style. Nemesis is much less fantastic, though, and deals with an actual historical moment rather than the counter-factual history of TPAA. Nemesis also feels like a more human story: it's very focused on a small collection of characters, particularly the protagonist, while TPAA had more fun spinning out the plot, and tended to use characters as a means towards that end.


Nemesis focuses on Bucky Cantor, who I think is one of the most likeable characters who I've recently encountered. Like many of Roth's characters, Bucky is Jewish, living in the Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic in Newark. It's the summer of 1944, at the height of American involvement in WWII. All of Bucky's friends have gone to war; he tried to enlist, but was rejected as a 4F due to his poor eyesight and short stature. Despite that, though, Bucky is a powerful and vigorous young man, who has been physically training and excelling at sports for practically his entire life. He's a hero to the young Jewish kids of the neighborhood, where he supervises the playground in the summer. He's about the most perfect role model you could imagine: he's patient with the unskilled kids, encourages their progress, sets good examples of sportsmanship, and protects them against threats both on and off the field.

It's a huge testament to Roth's writing prowess that this might be the first time in my life that I've been able to think about organized sports as a positive thing. My attitude towards gym class while growing up varied between hatred and resentment; it seemed frustrating, pointless, and demoralizing. (It wasn't until I became an adult that I realized that I actually enjoy physical activity, just not the competitive nature of organized sports.) Bucky, though, is a very eloquent champion of the virtues of sports and physical fitness, and ties it to these young boys' self-esteem and role as citizens. Many people in this neighborhood were just one generation removed from the ghettos of Europe, and excelling in sports isn't just a means to assimilation, but also a way to give oneself the confidence to protect oneself against anti-semitism.

Bucky isn't the most bookish guy, but he's also hardly a dumb jock: he was the first member of his family to graduate from college, thanks in part to the amazing emotional support of his grandmother and grandfather, and he takes his mission as a caregiver to children very seriously. He still feels a lot of guilt over "missing" the war in Europe, but that just increases his already-substantial sense of purpose and responsibility to his community.

Bucky was already admired, but becomes a minor hero when a polio epidemic strikes. I have to admit that, from my sheltered perspective in 21st-century America, I had only a vague notion of exactly what polio is. All I knew was that FDR got it, and it made his legs weak, and it was somehow connected to the iron lung. I succeeded in the difficult task of preventing myself from jumping on Wikipedia to research it, partly because I liked the idea of keeping myself in a mindset similar to that of the characters in this book. Polio is a mysterious disease, and while nobody in the novel is exactly sure what causes it or how it is spread, its effects are horrifying. It seems to particularly target young children and infants, much like a predator, killing many of them outright and leaving the survivors mangled, with twisted limbs.

Early on, Bucky's virile protection of the playground seems to provide some sort of protection over Weequahic as a whole. While most of Newark has been infected, this community remains safe. That begins to change, though, and Bucky feels partly responsible when children from his playground are the first to be infested and die.

Of course, people are worried by this, and the increasingly fraught nerves as the toll climbs higher threaten to transform into a panic. I was a little reminded of the antisemitic pogrom in The Plot Against America, but rather than false accusations being levied against a particular target, here there's a very particular harm but no certainty about the culprit. The reasonable pillars of the community seek to comfort people and keep them calm, but even they have to admit that they aren't sure what specifically can be done to halt the disease's spread. They offer their best possible advice: wash your hands, keep your home clean, avoid contact with the sick, try to get fresh air, and so on. But, of course, many of those who die seemed to have followed all of this advice, while others who flout it remain unscathed.

In light of all this, it's natural that people in general (and Bucky in particular) begin to think dark thoughts about the fairness of life and the universe. This is rather cliche territory, but Roth explores it with fresh urgency: how can one believe in a loving and all-powerful God who allows innocent children to be killed? Why should we give God credit for prayers that are answered, and not ascribe blame for those that are ignored?

It might be worth pointing out here that, as usual, Roth makes good use of the separation between author, narrator, and protagonist. I was reminded a little of American Pastoral's structure: in that book, it was easy to think that we were reading a third-person attached narrator of a story about The Swede. However, what we were actually reading was Nathan Zuckerman's embellishment of a story he'd heard about The Swede; Zuckerman only appears briefly on page near the start of that novel, but every word we read was written by him (as written by Roth). Similarly, Nemesis seems to be entirely about Bucky, but the actual narrator is one of the kids from the playground. It's a little surprising to hear him chime up at one point in the book - basically just saying, "Oh, yeah, that kid who got polio was me" - and then he appears for a bit longer near the end, describing how he was reunited with Bucky decades later and learned his story.

All that to say, while the novel tackles some heavy stuff, it doesn't really feel like a polemic. We get Bucky's perspective of a cruel and malicious God, which is viewed with skepticism by the atheistic narrator, all of which is being presented to us by Roth. The mediation isn't nearly as important here as it is in some of Roth's other books, but it's still interesting and effective.


Nemesis feels unusually propulsive, and late in the book, one bombshell drops after another. Bucky surprises us and himself when he agrees to abandon his playground duties and retreat to the safer environments of a remote summer camp. That was very narratively surprising, since it seemed to violate the heroic structure of the story so far. The book reaches a dark climax when polio cases begin to appear in the camp as well, and reaches its apex/nadir when Bucky himself is diagnosed with polio, confirming his horrible suspicions that, rather than being the guardian of the children, he was in fact their destroyer.

The actual truth of this belief is left open to questioning, as the narrator does at some length. For whatever it might be worth, I'm inclined to agree with him. I could believe that Bucky could be an asymptomatic carrier, who ignorantly infected his charges. However, given that he actually starts showing symptoms several days after the counselor does, I don't think it's possible that he could have first started carrying it way back before all the kids were infected. The timelines just don't seem to add up. (And, now that I've finished the book and finally rushed to read all about polio on Wikipedia, I feel vindicated in that decision).

That said, though, even if I don't believe that Bucky was responsible, I certainly can believe that he felt responsible. For so much of the book he felt like he was abandoning his moral obligations - to serve in the war effort, to stand by his post at the playground - even though reasonable people would certainly say that he was hopeless to prevent the first case and making a perfectly defensible choice in the second case. That sense of guilt easily transmutes into a sense of failure, and a mind like Bucky's will seize on something tangible to anchor that failure to.

This book ended up being far more depressing than I had initially thought. Rather than the tale of a solid, reliable young man who stood up for what he believed in and helped people survive the emotional trauma of a horrific plague, it became a tragedy, the tale of a man deserting his post and losing all happiness from his life. For all the sadness, though, it's still a beautifully written story, if not one I see myself running back to any time soon.


Nemesis might be the most accessible Roth I've read yet, alongside The Plot Against America. It's simple but powerful, not unlike its protagonist. As with many Roth tales, it's rooted in a very specific time, place, and community, but that same specificity allows it to address some universal ideas in a very engaging way. While I can't say this is the most enjoyable Roth story I've read, it's very well-crafted and another fine example of his vast range.

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