Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Review: Nemesis, Philip Roth


Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010

In the "stifling heat of equatorial Newark," a terrifying epidemic is raging, threatening the children of the New Jersey city with maiming, paralysis, lifelong disability, and even death. This is the startling theme of Philip Roth’s wrenching new book: a wartime polio epidemic in the summer of 1944 and the effect it has on a closely knit, family-oriented Newark community and its children. At the center of Nemesis is a vigorous, dutiful twenty-three-year-old playground director, Bucky Cantor, a javelin thrower and weightlifter, who is devoted to his charges and disappointed with himself because his weak eyes have excluded him from serving in the war alongside his contemporaries. Focusing on Cantor’s dilemmas as polio begins to ravage his playground—and on the everyday realities he faces—Roth leads us through every inch of emotion such a pestilence can breed: the fear, the panic, the anger, the bewilderment, the suffering, and the pain. 

Moving between the smoldering, malodorous streets of besieged Newark and Indian Hill, a pristine children’s summer camp high in the Poconos—whose "mountain air was purified of all contaminants"—Roth depicts a decent, energetic man with the best intentions struggling in his own private war against the epidemic. Roth is tenderly exact at every point about Cantor’s passage into personal disaster, and no less exact about the condition of childhood. Through this story runs the dark questions that haunt all four of Roth’s late short novels, Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and now Nemesis: What kind of accidental choices fatally shape a life? How does the individual withstand the onslaught of circumstance?

Nemesis is classed as the final of Roth's four short novels, published between 2006 and 2010, and the final Roth novel full stop, if the reports in late 2012 are right, as Roth himself declared that he was "done". While I struggled a little with The Humbling, the earlier two novels, Everyman and Indignation, were both excellent, particularly Everyman. Nemesis, happily, falls (for me) into this second camp.

It tells the story of Bucky Cantor, who spends the summer of 1944 as director of the Chancellor Avenue playground in Weequahic, Newark, New Jersey, a largely Jewish section of the city that is being ravaged by polio. What starts with a couple of boys at the playground quickly turns into an epidemic, and Bucky starts to agonise over how he can keep the kids safe. I liked Bucky - he is gutted that he's been excluded from the army, where his two best friends are fighting in Europe, and instead he focuses all his attention on this unexpected war at home, against a virus that in 1944 has no known cure. Bucky loves the playground kids, and is dedicated to getting them involved in sports, and when he's not at the playground he's caring for his elderly grandmother, who brought him up, and missing his girlfriend Marcia, who is working at a summer camp in the Pocono Mountains.

There is a horrible sense of inevitability throughout the book, as more and more kids get ill, and a choice that Bucky makes partway through the novel has much wider ramifications, or at least it seems that way to Bucky. Roth does not offer up any kind of happy ending here, and the last section of the book concerns Bucky as a middle-aged man in 1971, meeting one of the kids from the playground, Arnie Mesnikoff, and recounting how his life turned out after that fateful summer. The book is actually narrated by Arnie (there is one clue to this, early on, before Arnie himself appears near the end), and is meant as a record of the conversations Bucky and Arnie have had on these weekly lunch meetings over twenty five years later.

The blurb suggests that these late Roth novels have dealt with themes of "choice" and "circumstance", and certainly Nemesis owes more to circumstances than to choices: though Bucky makes two big decisions in Nemesis, it is deliberately unclear whether either of these have altered the course of events in any significant way, which just adds to the agony of the story. As the final book of Roth's career, it deals with death, God, and the anguish that comes with a fundamental lack of control: not a particularly happy read, but one that sticks with you long afterwards.

Overall rating: 9/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.


  1. I haven't read any of Roth's books, but this one really has me interested as I find disease/viruses quite interesting and I want to read more books set in the past. Great review!

    1. Thanks Mandee :) It was really interesting to see a period depicted in which polio had no known cure (particularly as it's a relatively recent period), and kind of frightening to see how quickly a virus like that can spread and infiltrate whole communities.


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