Reviewed by Jerry Binder, Ph.D. Dr. Binder teaches classes at the Whizin Center at AJU. He specializes in researching, writing and offering programs about the Jewish role in shaping the American experience.
At the heart of Philip Roth’s recent novel, Nemesis, are daunting questions. Just how able are we to contend with adversity? How much personal power do any of us have in the face of overpowering circumstances? How do we find meaning and purpose in our lives?
Nemesis begins in the "stifling heat of equatorial Newark,” where a wartime polio epidemic in the summer of 1944 is terrifying and threatening the children of the city with disability and even death. Roth depicts a community that is vulnerable and impotent. In the midst of the onslaught is Bucky Cantor, a twenty-three year old playground director, who must contend with the dread of neighborhood residents and his own fears.
We quickly understand that there are three nemeses in novel - the foreign enemy that America is fighting; the domestic enemy of polio that attacks children; and Bucky’s personal enemy, the disgrace of poor vision that sidelines him from fighting alongside “all the able-bodied men his age.”
Nemesis is a story of unusual warmth and tenderness from Philip Roth, for we have become accustomed these many years to reading his confounding, sobering and often absurdly comical literary gems. Of his writing, Roth explains, “Sheer playfulness and deadly seriousness are my closest friends.”
Philip Roth has kept company with these “friends” over a writing career of fifty years and at age 78, he is reverently referred to as a “Living Literary Legend,” having been honored with more literary awards than any other American novelist.
Roth is not just our greatest living novelist, but a great chronicler of the last seventy years of American history. Some examples: the WW-II isolationist sentiment and paranoid undercurrents in politics depicted in The Plot Against America; McCarthy era hysteria in I Married A Communist; the Korean War in Indignation; the radical politics of the 60’s in American Pastoral; the excesses of political correctness in The Human Stain; and the 9/11 aftermath in Exit Ghost.
Roth is also the great chronicler of post-immigrant Jewish-American life. His characters are the children of people who worked to achieve upward social mobility into the middle class and rise to success through the American meritocracy; these people are educated, cultured and financially comfortable.
Roth describes his fusion of the historical with the personal this way: “People prepare for life in a certain way and have certain expectations of the difficulties that come with those lives. Then they get blindsided by the present moment; history comes in at them in ways for which there is no preparation. History is a very sudden thing… the historical fire is at the center and the smoke from that fire reaches into your house.”
Good-hearted Bucky Cantor is caught up in one of these “fires” of history. His life begins with his mother dying in childbirth and his father abandoning him to his grandparents. Later, in an America galvanized for war, Bucky is humiliated because his poor eyesight excludes him from military service.
Roth takes us through a harrowing summer as Bucky confronts the grim realities brought on by the epidemic—widespread fear, panic, bewilderment and helplessness. He contends with the disease-besieged city and briefly visits his girlfriend at a children’s summer camp in the Poconos, where the “mountain air was purified of all contaminants.” Roth depicts a compassionate young man with humanitarian impulses fighting two separate wars - an external war against an epidemic, and an internal war with his conflicted emotions about self-preservation, sacrifice and service to others.
This is Philip Roth at his best, writing about people who wrestle with personal distress and the universal conflicts unavoidable in the quest for finding meaning and purpose in life. Bucky Cantor is a compelling portrait of profound human drama and we find ourselves rooting for him throughout the story as it moves to its inevitable conclusion.