Review: Nemesis by Philip Roth
Published 02/01/2011 | 05:00
PHILIP ROTH'S septuagenarian surge goes on, the novel under review making it a book a year since 2006 when Everyman appeared to signal a less than stoic preoccupation with death.
The tetralogy, with Indignation (2008) and last year's novella The Humbling in the middle, is now completed by Nemesis. In between came Exit Ghost, the forlorn croak of Roth's longtime alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, which also read like a tentative handshake with the Reaper.
With all this pessimism (though Roth appeared to be bearing the burden of his 77 years with notable cheerfulness in a recent interview), it is a pleasure to be able to say that his new novel shows the maestro in full command of the powers that have made him America's greatest living fiction writer.
The background to this story is an outbreak of polio that struck Newark, New Jersey, in the stifling summer of 1944, killing and maiming young people and causing panic and despair -- and the furious search for scapegoats -- in a classic case of helpless people confronted by uncontrollable forces. (This was a decade before the appearance of the Salk vaccine which virtually ended poliomyelitis in the West).
Epidemics of polio were not new in the US: in 1916 there were 27,000 cases with 6,000 deaths, leaving mainly young people deformed or disabled, many on crutches or in wheelchairs. It could cause paralysis of the respiratory muscles, leading to death. It could kill within a few days of striking, and it wasn't really known how it was transmitted.
The young hero of Nemesis is Eugene Cantor, known as Bucky, a champion diver and javelin thrower, rejected for service in the war because of severe short sight, who works as a physical instructor to boys and youths in a Newark school. He is 23, conscientious and dedicated, a person, as we will see throughout the narrative, possessed of perhaps an oversensitive conscience and a sense of guilt often disproportionate to events over which he has little control. His mother died giving birth to him; his father was a petty criminal, long gone, and Cantor has been brought up by his loving grandparents.
When polio starts to claim its young victims in Newark, a low-lying city partly surrounded by swamps, some from Cantor's classes succumb. Grief spreads; Bucky goes to the funerals of a few of his charges, youths who had been energetic and healthy a few days earlier. He is berated and screamed at by a parent for keeping his classes going through the terrible summer. In one tableau, a student, Kenny, formerly a model of maturity, shouts hysterical abuse at Horace, a simple-minded man who wanders the city streets, unwashed and mumbling, wanting to shake hands with people. "Get him away from me or I'll kill him," Kenny howls, as tears run down Horace's face. Fear is everywhere, irrational and obsessive; everyone is seen as a threat, a potential carrier of the deadly plague.
The slow build-up of terror and rage as the city locks down and ambulance sirens punctuate the fevered night silence is written in simple, unfussy prose, Roth, back in his home territory of Newark, at his most incisive.
Cantor's girlfriend Marcia pleads with Bucky to flee the city and join her in a summer camp for young people where she works and, feeling like a deserter, he agrees and quits his job. In the rural idyll, run with a Red Indian theme that Roth neatly satirises, Cantor and fiancee try to forget the horrors of Newark and concentrate on their feelings for each other. If there is a weak point in Nemesis it is in the characterisation of Marcia, whose excessive wholesomeness is a bit sticky -- she's certainly a long way from the ball-breaking harpies of Roth's more misogynistic middle age.
Along with his guilt over leaving Newark, Cantor broods about his failure to get into the armed forces while his friends take part in the D-Day landing on Normandy. And then the plague follows him: an athletic youth goes down with polio, possibly carried to Indian Hill by Bucky.
The novel unfolds in three parts, as Cantor descends into the depths he's constrained to explore -- constrained by his hypersensitive nature and the sense of guilt that is compounded by his being "the son of a thief". In the end it is his own unrelenting nature, his stoic rigidity, that forces him to a decision that will affect the rest of his life.
It has been pointed out that Roth is not the first writer to be gripped by the subject of a society visited by plague -- Daniel Defoe in the 18th Century, Albert Camus with The Plague in the 20th among them -- but Roth, though his research was crucial to the book, is more concerned with the character of his protagonist. Not a sophisticate or an intellectual, Bucky is presented sympathetically as that rarity in modern fiction, a morally stringent person. And this quality, as we see at the end of this very fine novel, is both his strength and his tragedy.
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