Sunday, March 27, 2011

Book review, Nemesis by Phillip Roth

Phillip Roth
Houghton Miflin Harcourt, 2010

            Nemesis, the 31st novel of Phillip Roth's career, centers on a good-hearted playground instructor named Bucky Cantor and his efforts to deal with a polio outbreak in 1944 Newark. Kept out of the war because of his poor eyesight, Bucky makes himself useful by helping the neighborhood families get through the horrible summer. But as children at the playground continue to fall ill, Bucky begins to feel personally responsible, until solving the riddle of the disease becomes his obsession. As the mysterious narrator tells us, “The guilt in someone like Bucky may seem absurd, but, in fact, is unavoidable.” Darkly poetic and richly detailed, Nemesis may be the best of Roth’s recent novels.

            Roth is revisiting his favorite turf - the Jewish America of World War Two - but like most of Roth's recent work, Nemesis is preoccupied with disease, aging, and death. However, the maudlin topics go down easily thanks to the brisk beauty of Roth’s storytelling. In the past few years Roth has created a cycle of compact, elegant novels that usually come in at fewer than 275 pages. As Roth told The New York Times in 2006, "The thing about this length that I've particularly come to like is that you can get the impact of a novel, which arises from its complexity and the thoroughness of detail, but you can also get the impact you get from a short story, because a good reader can keep the whole thing in mind."

            Nemesis unfolds like a parable. Bucky Cantor's Weequahic neighborhood feels as contained as one of Isaac Bashevis Singer's villages, complete with a local fool, a gentle love story, a doctor described as having "a nose out of a folktale," and awkward young boys wanting only to throw the javelin like Bucky. Meanwhile, everything from the spittle on the streets to the pig farms of nearby Secaucus seems to ooze with the menace of polio. In a way, the novel is about how humans endure even as their idealism is being trumped by forces beyond their control: the old Jewish men in Weequahic wear scars from past bouts with anti-Semitism; the surviving children will be scarred by polio. As for Bucky, his ending feels as predetermined as something out of Greek tragedy. Still, even if we can sense how Bucky's story will play out, it is no less upsetting to see him crushed by the randomness of life.

            Late in the book Bucky debates where God’s place is among the wars and epidemics that have destroyed people throughout history, but these questions stall the story's momentum. Roth is more effective when he uses images, rather than dialogue, to illuminate his themes. When Roth describes an adult polio survivor struggling along in his leg braces, or a swarm of butterflies descending upon a children’s campground just before the area is quarantined, Nemesis feels like a small masterpiece.

- Don Stradley

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