Leah Hager Cohen
…stands out for its warmth…suffused with precise and painful tenderness…Given its pall of war and disease, Nemesis is surprisingly dense with happinessa happiness that's ever-tenuous, and the sweeter for it…The architecture of Roth's sentences is almost invisibly elegant; not only doesn't one notice the art, one barely notices the sentence, registering instead pure function: meaning, rhythm, intent. Is it impertinent to suggest Roth outdoes himself here by getting out of his own way? This short book has all his brilliance, minus the bluster.
The New York Times
Roth continues his string of small, anti-Horatio Alger novels (The Humbling; etc.) with this underwhelming account of Bucky Cantor, the young playground director of the Chancellor Avenue playground in 1944 Newark. When a polio outbreak ravages the kids at the playground, Bucky, a hero to the boys, becomes spooked and gives in to the wishes of his fiancée, who wants him to take a job at the Pocono summer camp where she works. But this being a Roth novel, Bucky can't hide from his fate. Fast-forward to 1971, when Arnie Mesnikoff, the subtle narrator and one of the boys from Chancellor, runs into Bucky, now a shambles, and hears the rest of his story of piercing if needless guilt, bad luck, and poor decisions. Unfortunately, Bucky's too simple a character to drive the novel, and the traits that make him a good playground director--not very bright, quite polite, beloved, straight thinking--make him a lackluster protagonist. For Roth, it's surprisingly timid. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"NEMESIS presents a revelation as startling as the discovery of a planet or the alignment of a new constellation... Nemesis could be the darkest novel Roth has written and ranks with the most provocative." -- Kirkus Reviews, starred
"The fourth in the great and undiminished Roth's recent cycle of short novels follows Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008), and The Humbling (2009), and as exceptional as those novels are, this latest in the series far exceeds its predecessors in both emotion and intellect." --Booklist, starred Book of the Day, 7/22
"Roth, one of our greatest American writers, is unrivaled in his mastery at evoking mid-20th- century New Jersey, but it's the thoughtful examination of the toll guilt takes on the psyche, the futility of raging against God or Fate, and the danger of turning blame inward that give this short novel its power." — Library Journal, starred, August 2010
"Yet another small triumph, and by small I mean in length....This dual portrait, of a neighborhood and of a man quite representative of the times when trouble struck his neighborhood with lethal force, gives this new novel a singular appeal." - Alan Cheuse, All Things Considered and Chicago Tribune, Oct. 5
"Roth's book has the elegance of a fable and the tragic inevitability of a Greek drama." - The New Yorker, Oct. 18
"like a very well-executed O. Henry story, a parable about the embrace of conscience... and what its suffocating, life-denying consequences can be." -- Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
"Set mostly in Newark in 1944 and suffused with tenderness, Roth's novel tells the story of a military reject, a young phys ed teacher, who turns a polio out-break into his own patriotic battleground." --New York Times Book Review, Editor's Choice, Oct. 17
"Philip Roth has done it again! For his 32nd book, America’s outstanding writer has once again demonstrated his mastery of the short novel with his newest contribution, Nemesis. This achievement is especially noteworthy since Roth is now 77 years old, but advanced age has not dimmed his unusual capacity to engage and delight his readers." - The Jewish Chronicle
"Moving....A sad beauty is found in Roth's details and descripions...Nemesis is painful and powerful." -- Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today
During the summer of 1944, young men like Bucky Cantor needed good reason not to be fighting overseas. Though he had bad eyesight, was the sole support of his grandmother, and was the best phys ed teacher Newark's Chancellor Avenue School ever saw, Bucky's guilt informed his life that long, hot summer and forever changed its trajectory. With an incredible eye for historical detail, Roth paints a vivid picture of the polio epidemic that hit the Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic on the Fourth of July weekend, pitting ignorance against science, neighbor against neighbor, and fear against common sense. Bucky excels at his job, keeping the kids active and naively believing that he can personally hold the disease at bay. But as one child after another falls ill, he loses faith in God even as he obsesses over the chance to join his girlfriend, Marcia, in the Poconos. VERDICT Roth, one of our greatest American writers, is unrivaled in his mastery at evoking mid-20th-century New Jersey, but it's the thoughtful examination of the toll guilt takes on the psyche, the futility of raging against God or Fate, and the danger of turning blame inward that give this short novel its power. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/10.]—Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib., Ft. Myers, FL
For those who monitor the growing list of books by Philip Roth, his forthcoming, Nemesis, presents a revelation as startling as the discovery of a planet or the alignment of a new constellation.
The top of the list remains reassuringly familiar: "Zuckerman Books" (those featuring Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's alter ego), "Roth Books" (another alter ego, "Philip Roth," in a category that includes fiction and nonfiction alike) and "Kepesh Books" (another serial protagonist who may or may not be an alter ego).
But then there is an emergent category: "Nemeses: Short Fiction," which encompasses four recent novels, including the new one. What this means to the ardent Roth reader is that three works previously considered unrelated—Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008) and The Humbling (2009), formerly scattered at the list's bottom with some of his earliest efforts as "Other Books," are now connected. And Nemesis provides the key to that connection.
A little longer than the other three, Nemesis could be the darkest novel Roth has written and ranks with the most provocative. It's a parable of innocence lost in the author's native Newark, where polio threatens a neighborhood that is already sacrificing young men to World War II. The protagonist is Bucky Cantor, a 23-year-old playground director, who has seen his best friends enlist in the war while he was rejected for poor eyesight.
Instead, "Mr. Cantor" (as his charges call him) finds himself facing a more insidious enemy. "No medicine existed to treat the disease and no vaccine to produce immunity...(it) could befall anyone, for no apparent reason," writes Roth. It arrives without warning, and it changes everything. If anything, it was scarier than cancer or AIDS is now.
Narrating the story is one of polio's victims, though he barely emerges as a character until the novel's epiphany. Until then, Roth lets the reader wonder how a narrator named only in passing could penetrate the protagonist's mind and relate a series of incidents that the narrator couldn't have witnessed.
As Bucky's boys succumb to the disease, temptation lures him from the city to what appears to be a safe oasis, an idyllic summer camp where his girlfriend works. Yet his conscience (already plagued by his 4-F status) pays the price for his escape, an escape that might prove illusory.
What is Bucky's nemesis? Maybe polio. Maybe God, "who made the virus," who kills children with "lunatic cruelty." Maybe mortality—death and the decay that precedes it, the ravages of time that distinguish man from God.
But maybe Bucky's nemeses include Bucky himself—a layer of meaning that makes this novel something other than another retelling of Job and forces the reader to reconsider the previously published "Nemeses" in fresh light. For it is within these short novels that Roth tackles nothing less than the human condition, which finds its nemesis in the mirror.
Read an Excerpt
The first case of polio that summer came early in June, right after Memorial Day, in a poor Italian neighborhood crosstown from where we lived. Over in the city's southwestern corner, in the Jewish Weequahic section, we heard nothing about it, nor did we hear anything about the next dozen cases scattered singly throughout Newark in nearly every neighborhood but ours. Only by the Fourth of July, when there were already forty cases reported in the city, did an article appear on the front page of the evening paper, titled "Health Chief Puts Parents on Polio Alert," in which Dr. William Kittell, superintendent of the Board of Health, was quoted as cautioning parents to monitor their children closely and to contact a physician if a child exhibited symptoms such as headache, sore throat, nausea, stiff neck, joint pain, or fever. Though Dr. Kittell acknowledged that forty polio cases was more than twice as many as normally reported this early in the polio season, he wanted it clearly understood that the city of 429,000 was by no means suffering from what could be characterized as an epidemic of poliomyelitis. This summer as every summer, there was reason for concern and for the proper hygienic precautions to be taken, but there was as yet no cause for the sort of alarm that had been displayed by parents, "justifiably enough," twenty-eight years earlier, during the largest outbreak of the disease ever reported-the 1916 polio epidemic in the northeastern United States, when there had been more than 27,000 cases, with 6,000 deaths. In Newark there had been 1,360 cases and 363 deaths.
Now even in a year with an average number of cases, when the chances of contracting polio were much reduced from what they'd been back in 1916, a paralytic disease that left a youngster permanently disabled and deformed or unable to breathe outside a cylindrical metal respirator tank known as an iron lung-or that could lead from paralysis of the respiratory muscles to death-caused the parents in our neighborhood considerable apprehension and marred the peace of mind of children who were free of school for the summer months and able to play outdoors all day and into the long twilit evenings. Concern for the dire consequences of falling seriously ill from polio was compounded by the fact that no medicine existed to treat the disease and no vaccine to produce immunity. Polio-or infantile paralysis, as it was called when the disease was thought to infect mainly toddlers-could befall anyone, for no apparent reason. Though children up to sixteen were usually the sufferers, adults too could become severely infected, as had the current president of the United States.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, polio's most renowned victim, had contracted the disease as a vigorous man of thirty-nine and subsequently had to be supported when he walked and, even then, had to wear heavy steel-and-leather braces from his hips to his feet to enable him to stand. The charitable institution that FDR founded while he was in the White House, the March of Dimes, raised money for research and for financial assistance to the families of the stricken; though partial or even full recovery was possible, it was often only after months or years of expensive hospital therapy and rehabilitation. During the annual fund drive, America's young donated their dimes at school to help in the fight against the disease, they dropped their dimes into collection cans passed around by ushers in movie theaters, and posters announcing "You Can Help, Too!" and "Help Fight Polio!" appeared on the walls of stores and offices and in the corridors of schools across the country, posters of children in wheelchairs-a pretty little girl wearing leg braces shyly sucking her thumb, a clean-cut little boy with leg braces heroically smiling with hope-posters that made the possibility of getting the disease seem all the more frighteningly real to otherwise healthy children.
Summers were steamy in low-lying Newark, and because the city was partially ringed by extensive wetlands-a major source of malaria back when that, too, was an unstoppable disease-there were swarms of mosquitoes to be swatted and slapped away whenever we sat on beach chairs in the alleys and driveways at night, seeking refuge out of doors from our sweltering flats, where there was nothing but a cold shower and ice water to mitigate the hellish heat. This was before the advent of home air conditioning, when a small black electric fan, set on a table to stir up a breeze indoors, offered little relief once the temperature reached the high nineties, as it did repeatedly that summer for stretches of a week or ten days. Outdoors, people lit citronella candles and sprayed with cans of the insecticide Flit to keep at bay the mosquitoes and flies that were known to have carried malaria, yellow fever, and typhoid fever and were believed by many, beginning with Newark's Mayor Drummond, who launched a citywide "Swat the Fly" campaign, to carry polio. When a fly or a mosquito managed to penetrate the screens of a family's flat or fly in through an open door, the insect would be doggedly hunted down with fly swatter and Flit out of fear that by alighting with its germ-laden legs on one of the household's sleeping children it would infect the youngster with polio. Since nobody then knew the source of the contagion, it was possible to grow suspicious of almost anything, including the bony alley cats that invaded our backyard garbage cans and the haggard stray dogs that slinked hungrily around the houses and defecated all over the sidewalk and street and the pigeons that cooed in the gables of the houses and dirtied front stoops with their chalky droppings. In the first month of the outbreak-before it was acknowledged as an epidemic by the Board of Health-the sanitation department set about systematically to exterminate the city's huge population of alley cats, even though no one knew whether they had any more to do with polio than domesticated house cats.
What people did know was that the disease was highly contagious and might be passed to the healthy by mere physical proximity to those already infected. For this reason, as the number of cases steadily mounted in the city-and communal fear with it-many children in our neighborhood found themselves prohibited by their parents from using the big public pool at Olympic Park in nearby Irvington, forbidden to go to the local "air-cooled" movie theaters, and forbidden to take the bus downtown or to travel Down Neck to Wilson Avenue to see our minor league team, the Newark Bears, play baseball at Ruppert Stadium. We were warned not to use public toilets or public drinking fountains or to swig a drink out of someone else's soda-pop bottle or to get a chill or to play with strangers or to borrow books from the public library or to talk on a public pay phone or to buy food from a street vendor or to eat until we had cleaned our hands thoroughly with soap and water. We were to wash all fruit and vegetables before we ate them, and we were to keep our distance from anyone who looked sick or complained of any of polio's telltale symptoms.
Escaping the city's heat entirely and being sent off to a summer camp in the mountains or the countryside was considered a child's best protection against catching polio. So too was spending the summer some sixty miles away at the Jersey Shore. A family who could afford it rented a bedroom with kitchen privileges in a rooming house in Bradley Beach, a strip of sand, boardwalk, and cottages a mile long that had already been popular for several decades among North Jersey Jews. There the mother and the children would go to the beach to breathe in the fresh, fortifying ocean air all week long and be joined on weekends and vacations by the father. Of course, cases of polio were known to crop up in summer camps as they did in the shore's seaside towns, but because they were nothing like as numerous as those reported back in Newark, it was widely believed that, whereas city surroundings, with their unclean pavements and stagnant air, facilitated contagion, settling within sight or sound of the sea or off in the country or up in the mountains afforded as good a guarantee as there was of evading the disease.
So the privileged lucky ones disappeared from the city for the summer while the rest of us remained behind to do exactly what we shouldn't, given that "overexertion" was suspected of being yet another possible cause of polio: we played inning after inning and game after game of softball on the baking asphalt of the school playground, running around all day in the extreme heat, drinking thirstily from the forbidden water fountain, between innings seated on a bench crushed up against one another, clutching in our laps the well-worn, grimy mitts we used out in the field to mop the sweat off our foreheads and to keep it from running into our eyes-clowning and carrying on in our soaking polo shirts and our smelly sneakers, unmindful of how our imprudence might be dooming any one of us to lifelong incarceration in an iron lung and the realization of the body's most dreadful fears.
Only a dozen or so girls ever appeared at the playground, mainly kids of eight or nine who could usually be seen jumping rope where far center field dropped off into a narrow school street closed to traffic. When the girls weren't jumping rope they used the street for hopscotch and running-bases and playing jacks or for happily bouncing a pink rubber ball at their feet all day long. Sometimes when the girls jumping rope played double dutch, twirling two ropes in opposite directions, one of the boys would rush up unbidden and, elbowing aside the girl who was about to jump, leap in and mockingly start bellowing the girls' favorite jumping song while deliberately entangling himself in their flying ropes. "H, my name is Hippopotamus—!" The girls would holler at him "Stop it! Stop it!" and call out for help from the playground director, who had only to shout from wherever he was on the playground to the troublemaker (most days it was the same boy), "Cut it out, Myron! Leave the girls alone or you're going home!" With that, the uproar subsided. Soon the jump ropes were once again snappily turning in the air and the chanting taken up anew by one jumper after another.
What People are saying about this
From the Publisher
“Roth’s book has the elegance of a fable and the tragic inevitability of a Greek drama.”—The New Yorker
“An artfully constructed, suspenseful novel with a cunning twist towards the end.”—J. M. Coetzee, New York Review of Books
“Elegant. . . . Suffused with precise and painful tenderness. . . . Stands out for its warmth.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Painful and powerful. . . . Somberly but vividly, [Roth] recreates the panic and fear triggered by polio.” —USA Today
“A perfectly proportioned Greek tragedy played out against the background of the polio epidemic that swept Newark, New Jersey, during the summer of 1944.” —Financial Times
“Like a very well-executed O. Henry story. . . . A parable about the embrace of conscience. . . .and what its suffocating, life-denying consequences can be.” –Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Yet another small triumph from one of our native artists largest in spirit. And by small I mean in length of the book. . . . This dual portrait, of a neighborhood and of a man quite representative of the times when trouble struck his neighborhood with lethal force, gives this new novel a singular appeal.” —Chicago Tribune
“Roth writes a lean, vigorous prose that burns with the intensity of his purpose. It flows smoothly even when he wrestles with the knottiest of philosophical problems.” —Plain Dealer
“Exquisite. It is utterly straightforward American realism that could almost have been written not long after Letting Go and Goodbye Columbus at the beginning of Roth’s career.” —Buffalo News
“Roth is all about character and how we are shaped by improbable circumstances, and here he offers up insight to match his many years on the job.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Grippingly and with documentary expertise, it tells a story set in the devastating 1944 polio epidemic. . . . Roth writes vividly of heat-choked streets and cramped houses.” —Boston Globe
“Classic Roth: handsomely written, historically evocative and brutally honest about human emotions. . . . Impressive.” —Richmond Times Dispatch
“Roth’s prose, that magnificent voice of his, has always fed off the twin passions of lust and rage.” —The New Republic
“Roth does an excellent job of conjuring up the fear that polio caused before the arrival of a vaccine. . . . Cantor is one of Roth’s best creations and the atmosphere of terror is masterfully fashioned.” —The Daily Telegraph (UK)
“Roth has always been terrific at rendering the times and places close to his own youth. And in Nemesis, he masterly contrasts the sweaty, close world of all-day ball games and nights spent on front stoops with affluence and young love developing in the cool countryside. . . . A quick, propulsive read full of chiseled storytelling.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Some of the most scathing and beautiful prose of our time.” —The Toronto Star
“Part of the appeal—and the strangeness—of Roth’s novel is the way that it renders this situation, with its seemingly undramatic topic and unlikely protagonist, without hyperbole, yet maintains a grasp on the tension and ethical drama.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)