By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
280 pp. $26
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Reviewed by Colette Bancroft
Philip Roth's latest novel,
, in many ways seems like a counterpoint to
, the book that marked his career blastoff in 1969.
Both are set in Roth's hometown of Newark, N.J., and have a young, guilt-racked Jewish man as their main character. In both books, questions of Jewish identity shape the story.
The superficial resemblances end there. Portnoy's Complaint was riotously comic: a profane first-person rant couched as a series of psychiatric sessions by the rebellious, randy Alexander Portnoy. It celebrated the cultural upheaval of the decade in which it was written, and its title became a synonym for literary sexual explicitness and excess.
Nemesis hardly cracks a joke, and neither does its protagonist, Bucky Cantor. His story is told by a narrator whose identity is revealed only gradually, and it is a somber, sometimes sentimental, ultimately tragic tale. Set in the wartime summer of 1944, around the time of D-Day, its disaster is closer to home: a polio epidemic that begins crippling and killing the children Bucky, a gym teacher and playground director, oversees. Bucky has a girlfriend, and they do have sex, starlit and respectful, but Bucky's Marcia is nothing like Portnoy's Monkey.
She does, though, echo Brenda Patimkin, the upper-class dream girl of the title novella in Roth's first collection, Goodbye, Columbus. Bucky is all earnest aspiration, raised in a tenement by his shopkeeper grandparents after his mother dies in childbirth and his father goes to prison for embezzlement. He's a beloved and dutiful boy, a natural athlete (although too short for collegiate team sports), and, as he grows up, a natural teacher. He's devastated when his poor eyesight keeps him out of the military as his friends go off to war, but he loves his job and students, and the school is where he meets Marcia, another rookie teacher he soon begins dating.
Bucky is in love not just with Marcia but with her whole prosperous, affectionate family, especially her dad, a doctor who is the kind of worldly, emotionally generous father figure Bucky always longed for. Where Portnoy looked forward toward new, maybe outrageous ways of defining manhood, Bucky looks back to a kind of upright but modest moral model of masculinity that seems nostalgic even in 1944.
That model at first serves him well as polio hits the city, seeming to stalk the mostly Jewish kids of the Weequahic neighborhood, where he's running the summer playground programs. Now mercifully almost forgotten after Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin developed vaccines first widely used 55 years ago, polio is a virus that achieved epidemic proportions in the first half of the 20th century. Easily spread through human contact, it can cause permanent paralysis of the limbs and respiratory system. Countless survivors of the disease ended up in iron lungs and wheelchairs (including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who contracted polio as a hale man of 39).
And polio killed, especially children, as Bucky all too soon discovers. First to go, 72 hours after his first symptoms develop, is his favorite student, Alan Michaels. "The best boy you could want," his grief-stricken father says. "Why not me instead of him?"
That, of course, is a question neither Bucky nor anyone else can answer, but as fear and panic spread it's one that is asked, it seems, every minute. Roth does a darkly splendid job of re-creating the atmosphere of dread amid an epidemic whose causes are unclear and whose cure is unknown, a fear that reverberates with the terrible paranoia that has driven the Nazis to war and genocide across the ocean.
As more and more children fall ill, Bucky tries to maintain calm and guard the kids in his charge, seeing himself as fighting his own war even as his pals land on the shores of Normandy. One thing he doesn't have to worry about: Marcia and her younger sisters, who are away at a summer camp in the Poconos, where, everyone believes, the healthful mountain air will protect them from polio.
But Marcia is worried about him, and she soon wangles him a job at the camp after another counselor is drafted. Bucky goes to her father for advice, looks around the family's handsome home, bites into a perfect peach, and gives in to temptation. It will come as a surprise to no one but Bucky that Camp Indian Hill is no safe haven.
Nemesis is a brief book, not much longer than a novella, but sharply focused. Many passages are warmed by nostalgia: Roth's descriptions of the neighborhood's streets and stoops and porches, alive with children playing and grown-ups going about their business, are richly evocative, as is the vivid picture he paints of the camp, fake Indian campfire ceremonies and all.
But those golden tones don't cover its darkness. The book's coda, in which we see Bucky almost 30 years later, is a heartbreaking portrait of another "best boy you could want" whose code couldn't prepare him for what the world had in store.