Philip Roth’s novels of recent years have dwelled, for the most part, on aging and dying, and which is worse. Again and again, he has used the specter of death as a means to study life. His stories point to the frailty of the human soul: at our cowardice and hubris, at our twin capacities for preposterous hope and baseless despair. NEMESIS is another work in that tradition, though different enough from what we’ve seen before. This time, its tragic hero is not an aging man whose best days are behind him. Instead, we are treated to watching a man with everything to lose as he loses everything.
"There’s a lasting eerie quality to this story."
The time is World War II, and in Newark, New Jersey, all the young men are away at war. The summer’s heat is infernal, and whispers of polio outbreaks inspire dread in the hearts of the city’s parents. Bucky Cantor, fresh out of college and disqualified from military service for poor eyesight, is the director of the Weequahic playground, where affluent Jewish boys spend their summer days despite the heat. He is humble, caring, brave and strong (everything Roth’s other recent protagonists are not), almost out of Hemingway. His fiancé is up in the Poconos at a summer camp for boys who could afford to escape the heat and the threat of polio infection. Ever the strong, silent type, Bucky isn’t deterred from staying with his charges and teaching them his values of strength and courage.
The first case in Weequahic comes after some Italian boys threaten the schoolyard. The cases trickle in at first, but soon every boy on the playground has a friend struck with the disease. Weequahic’s parents become hysterical as the worst of the Black Death and the Salem witch hunt descend on the neighborhood, with Bucky at its center. He must witness his playground fall apart and risk infection daily, until, in a fit of uncharacteristic cowardice, he flees for the Poconos to join his fiancé at the summer camp.
Roth’s focus in this first act is on hysteria in the face of death. No one, not even Hemingway-esque Bucky, can face polio without buckling before it. His second and third acts justify that hysteria. Shortly after Bucky arrives at the Poconos camp, polio strikes. Racked with guilt about abandoning Weequahic, Bucky fears he brought the plague with him, which a spinal tap confirms.
It’s difficult to know how to leave NEMESIS. Roth is unremitting in his assault on his characters. They end the novel morally broken or dead. While alive, they are guided by fear alone: Roth takes care with dialogue to make his characters as alien as possible, vessels for paranoia rather than souls. The effect is stirring at first, though it tires quickly, and the ambivalence it creates is so thick as to be impenetrable.
The novel is studded with all the drawbacks of Roth’s recent novels: its dialogue and exposition are so aimed at engendering awkwardness as to be clumsy; it so aims at disturbing the reader it does little else; its comically exaggerated characters are brilliant figureheads but either wooden or inhuman. But it also has so much of what makes Roth an unforgettable American writer: it perfectly captures a slice of American history and depicts its torrential effects on individuals and society. For starters, it’s quite telling that the war is only mentioned in terms of Bucky wishing he was in it. For Weequahic, polio is the real enemy, nothing short of the wrath of god.
NEMESIS is not the strongest of Roth’s recent offerings. It falls too easily into the formula set up by better books like INDIGNATION and EXIT GHOST. But there’s a lasting eerie quality to this story. The one-dimensional plot and character are more abstracted than those other works, and the emotions of the text are more pure. NEMESIS is a distillation of the idea of anxiety, which is ultimately as crippling as the demon polio.
Reviewed by Max Falkowitz on October 12, 2011