by Phillip Roth (2010)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2010)
280 pp

With Nemesis, Roth closes his quartet he has entitled Nemeses (the other titles include Everyman, Indignation, and The Humbling). Besides Everyman, which won the PEN/Faulkner award, each book in this quartet has been viewed as just-not-that-good. I totally agree that none of these books matches Roth’s masterpieces (and there are several), but I still think each is worth considering. They are, after all, written by one of the great American writers, one of the few of whom it can be said that everything is worth reading. As individual books, I still very much liked each book in this late series. As a whole quartet, I think this is a fantastic look at fate and death, those good old topics from the Greeks, who, it has been pointed out, gave us “indignation” and “nemesis.” Nemesis, the vengeful fate and spirit of retribution.

Everyman focuses on an unnamed older man, who, when the story begins, is already dead. As happens, despite his vitality, his body grew old and feeble and — there’s nothing to be done — died. With Indignation Roth goes back to the 1950s. In that book is another dead subject, only this time it is a young man who, despite his vitality, was swept up in the tragedy of history. A small, innocent decision led, in speedy course, to his demise. In The Humbling, Roth returned to an elderly subject, an actor who lost his ability to act. Not dead yet, this subject spends the pages of the book attempting to gain control over his fate — and maybe from his perspective he does.

Now with Nemesis, Roth goes back to a young subject and back to early Newark, this time during World War II. Our narrator begins by telling us about the horrors of this time period (besides the war) in “Equatorial Newark.”

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.

Here we meet Bucky Cantor, 23, who “was the cast-iron, wear-resistant, strikingly bold face of a sturdy young man you could rely on.” Fate has dealt him a bad hand. His mother died in child birth, and his father (whom he never knew) has spent a lot of time in prison. Most boys in Newark who grow up in such circumstances don’t end up like him. He has his maternal grandparents to thank for that; they raised him and he believes they, somehow, saved him. He is the playground director for the summer, and the neighborhood parents are happy to leave their children in Bucky’s care.

Roth certainly idealizes Bucky. He is polite, upstanding in every way, and he holds a lot of promise. He loves deeply those who have looked after him and those whom he looks after, though he is cool-headed and formal. He is not brash or profane — wait a minute, is this a Roth protagonist we’re talking about here? Indeed. It’s a perfect way for Roth to get to his punchline: “But there’s nobody less salvageable than a ruined good boy.”

At the beginning of the polio scare, Bucky sees himself as a protector of the children. No one knows how polio spreads, so he does everything he can thing of to keep the kids hydrated and to make sure they don’t spend too much time in the sun. Once, when a car filled with Italians from an infected neighborhood come to the playground, Bucky stands his ground and won’t let them get near the children. He represents the ideal hero:

His confident, decisive manner, his weightlifter’s strength, his joining in every day to enthusiastically play ball right alongside the rest of us — all this had made him a favorite of the playground regulars from the day he’d arrived as director; but after the incident with the Italians he became an outright hero, an idolized, protective, heroic older brother, particularly to those whose own older brothers were off in the war.

The Jewish section of Newark doesn’t remain safe from polio for long. Just like that, two of Bucky’s boys are dead. Each day others, including our narrator, are infected.  The neighborhood is in a panic, and no one knows whom to blame. The Italians? The hot-dog guy? The handicapped man? The sun? Roth’s portrayal of the irrational (but totally understandable) fear is convincing and terrible. Bucky is tempted by his girlfriend Maria, who is a camp director in the clean air of the Poconos, to leave Newark and the boys to spend the rest of the summer safe with her. In one moment where Bucky falls from his ideal, he gives in and says he’ll go. This turns out not to be a good thing.

To be honest, the plot in Nemesisis not surprising. We have a good idea where Roth is taking us. We know things won’t go well and that Bucky’s decision will bring him down. The book’s strength is in the way it resurrects the old understanding of tragedy. Bucky’s ruin is not due an act of wilful hubris we see in Shakespeare — he is ignorant that he himself is bringing the plague to Thebes. It is hubris before the gods, the idea the one is above chance or fate.

Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not. Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance — the tyranny of contingency — is everything.

A large portion of this book takes place well after the events have already occurred. It is here, when the plot has played out, that Roth really digs into “the tyranny of contingency” and the idea of justice and fate. Here, years later, the narrator contrasts himself with Bucky, his fallen hero. Bucky has gone offstage to blind himself and become an exile, and our narrator simply cannot understand why. The narrator’s own life, despite the chance that led to tragedy, has become something good. But Bucky, despite the fact that he had no conscious role in the tragedy, blames himself and has now wilfully continued to inflict his own punish, to mete out justice as he sees it, all the while clamoring to a god he says he does not believe it. With whatever control he has over his life, Bucky has used it to torment himself. It’s a fascinating play with these themes, even if the plot itself is thin (though it lends itself to the discussion of these themes).

No, Nemesis isn’t as good as Roth’s many masterpieces. But it is still masterful, and watching him complete these variations on a theme has been a highlight for my reading in the last few years.

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By |2016-08-09T16:06:07-04:00November 1st, 2010|Categories: Book Reviews, Philip Roth|Tags: , |23 Comments


  1. Lee Monks November 1, 2010 at 6:24 am

    Couldn’t agree more. No masterpiece, then, but masterfully done, and extremely affecting. The inter-relationships between the kids (and the ‘moron’) are pitch-perfect and the sense of winding dread throughout is, well, masterful.

  2. KevinfromCanada November 1, 2010 at 11:49 am

    Excellent thoughts. I have been very impressed with the previous three, perhaps even more than you, because I think Roth is at his best in shorter volumes. This one is on its way and I intend to pick it up shortly after it arrives. This review is an excellent set up.

  3. Trevor November 1, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    I agree, Lee. I didn’t know you’d read this yet. I enjoy your movie blog, but, honestly, how are we to know what books you’re reading?

    Kevin, I think you have a healthy approach to these books, and I hope you’re right that my review is a good set up, but that it didn’t set your expectations too high! As always, I look forward to your thoughts.

  4. tolsmted November 1, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    Hi Trevor –

    Great review, as usual. I also reviewed the book a few months ago, and on the whole agree with you. This is my first Roth book, so I don’t have much to compare it to – but was impressed by Nemesis without a frame of reference to the author. If this is one of his lesser works, I can’t wait to move on to his better ones!

    Did you read the Coetzee review? I ask because you mention the Greeks and – while I agree that fate, destiny and death are major themes of the book – I don’t agree that Roth is specifically subscribing to the Greek brand of it. And (being purposely vague so as not to give too much away) I felt that part of the power of the novel is that it doesn’t so easily fit that traditional formula of tragedy. The reader is left as much in the dark as the hero regarding what really happened. Because, when you think about it, Bucky has decided on his own version of events and taken responsibility for them. But that version isn’t necessarily the truth, and his sense of responsibility may be misplaced (or at the very least inflated). I don’t see Bucky as specifically a victim of fate or destiny or hubris. That would be too specific and impose too much order on events.

  5. tolsmted November 1, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    Ummm… substitute weeks for months. I really need to proofread my comments better. :(

  6. Trevor November 1, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Thanks for the thoughts, Tolmsted (or tolsmted, as you are sometimes known hereabouts :) ). I have read the Coetzee review (here), but I read it after I had put together my thoughts above (except for the fact that “indignation” was, in Greek, related to “nemesis” — I had no idea).

    I think the reason I think of it as Greek tragedy is because, to me, Bucky’s story is so very much like Oedipus’s story. He is the unwitting cause of the very plague he is trying to fight against (though, you’re right, we don’t necessarily know if Bucky brought polio to the camp — it’s certainly not a perfect fit, dang it).

    I do agree with you that, regardless of how many connections can be made to Greek tragedy, Roth himself is not subscribing (or, rather, limiting his book) to this view of fate and death. That’s why I like the last part so much: Roth is taking apart this particular notion of fate and punishment. Whereas Bucky wants to punish himself and live in exhile, Arnie Mesnikof thinks he’s being dumb about the whole thing. Bucky could still have, had he not chosen to take some grand view of the matter, lived a better life. Interestingly, it seems that in punishing himself Bucky is being more hubristic than when he felt he could fight against polio — it certainly doesn’t fit the theory classical tragedy, but that theory is very important, I think, to teasing out the variety of issues Roth is dealing with here.

    I’d love to hear more thoughts on this, as I am pretty much just winging it :).

  7. William Rycroft November 1, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    Great to read your thoughts Trevor, my Roth stalwart. This is a book which grew in my mind even as I was writing my review and has continued to mature afterwards. Whilst reading it however I couldn’t hide a slight disappointment from myself. This is only because the masterpieces are so great. My only worry is how long the wait might be for another Roth book to come along…

  8. Lee Monks November 2, 2010 at 4:41 am

    ‘Interestingly, it seems that in punishing himself Bucky is being more hubristic than when he felt he could fight against polio-‘

    I think that comment gets to the crux of what Roth is doing here. Great stuff.

    I agree with Kevin as well – Roth, overall, is better in the shorter form. And yes, I do think that his latter volumes – those under the ‘Nemeses’ umbrella – have been woefully misregarded. Give it 20 years.

  9. Lee Monks November 2, 2010 at 4:44 am

    PS Trevor, on what books I’m reading: too many at once usually! A terrible habit…

  10. Trevor November 2, 2010 at 11:01 am

    Will, I feel your concern: when will the next Roth book come out? I have enjoyed getting a new Roth book each fall (and we’ve known they were coming), but I’m not sure when his next one will be out.

    Lee and Kevin, what is the page span you’re talking about? I’m not sure I like his short stories as much as his novels, for example, though I do like them. And probably if I had a choice, I’d ask for more works around the same length as the Zuckerman Bound set, each bit shorter than the American trilogy, but each a bit longer than the Nemeses quartet.

  11. Lee Monks November 2, 2010 at 11:27 am

    I’d say around the 200 page mark. So that (very roughly) covers the Zuckerman books and the recent volumes, for example. From Everyman to Exit Ghost length? I do qualify this with reference to my saying ‘overall’ earlier!

  12. KevinfromCanada November 2, 2010 at 11:57 am

    I’d say starting with the Nemeses length (as opposed to short stories — I don’t know them well). As length increases, my impression tends to drop.

  13. Shelley November 2, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    The time of my writing is those terrible polio years, and I think it’s little-known but interesting that Franklin Roosevelt’s charitable work contributed in a crucial way to the discovery of the eventual breakthough vaccine many years later.

    Sometimes we seed a good that comes to fruition after our own death.

  14. Kevin November 2, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    Hi Trevor, I REALLY enjoyed this review. Kudos to you. Cheers, K2D2 oder KevinfromCA

  15. Trevor November 3, 2010 at 10:48 am

    K2D2, I haven’t seen any of your thoughts on this book. Is it on your list??

  16. tolsmted November 3, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    I put this link up at my blog, and thought I’d put it up for you guys to look into. It’s to the Reader’s Almanac (The Library of America blog) which talks about the relationship between Nemesis and Camus’ The Plague. Now, I didn’t pick up on this while reading the novel (it’s been years since I read The Plague) – but the more I think about it the more this interpretation/relationship fits.

    Trevor – do you really see similarities between Bucky’s story and Oedipus’? For me, other than the parallel of them leaving their homes in order to escape “fate” (which, in Bucky’s case, comes in the form of Polio), I just don’t see it. This might be because I never felt like Bucky left because he feared for his own health, but because he couldn’t face his inability/impotence to protect his charges.

  17. Kevin November 3, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    I haven’t read Nemesis and likely won’t. I love Roth, especially The Ghost Writer, The Counterlife, American Pastoral, and My Life as a Man. But I think my Roth stint is over. Wharton, baby!

  18. Trevor November 3, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Shucks, Kevin. Though I’m with you on Wharton!

    Tolmsted, I do see connections between Oedipus and Bucky. It’s not an all-out analogy (Bucky is no king of Thebes, and, sadly, I can find no Tiresius in Nemesis), but I think there are some general connections that, when put together and then pulled apart, make for some interesting discussions about fate and chance, contingency and destiny. I think Roth is playing with all of these issues. The connections are there, but they are loose. In part, it is Arnie’s role to pull them apart in the end.

    First, there are some general similarities in the characters’ plots. Some of these similarities only work if you make assumptions about what happened in Nemesis. Since we don’t know how Bucky contracted polio, and we don’t know if he spread it at the camp or contracted it himself there, we can’t really know his role in the matter. But I’m going to make these assumptions for this purpose (Bucky certain subscribes to them), fully aware that the whole thing can be reinterpreted (as Arnie succeeds in doing in the last part) — all part of the fun!

    Both Bucky and Oedipus are idealized, stalwart members of a community that has reached hard times. However, both are the unwitting sources of a plague that is causing fear all over the community, and no one knows how to stop it. Perhaps both brought on those plagues in a moment of bravery, Oedipus when he killed Laius and Bucky when he stood up to the Italians. Both, upon realizing their folly, fully blame themselves. Both become crippled (though Bucky does not do this to himself), and both punish themselves with self-inflicted exile, despite the fact that people around them wish they’d stay.

    Now, some of these are looser than others, and there may be more than I’m putting her (or less!); the fun is pulling these apart. After all, it is the thematic convergence and divergence, not the character similarities, that are the most fun to play with when considering Nemesis in the light of Oedipus Rex.

    First, though both are unwitting sources of a plague, Oedipus brought the plague on by an act of violence and was cursed by the gods. Bucky was not cursed by the gods. That Bucky becomes a carrier of polio is not the result of any “sin”; it is just chance. Though he was possibly foolish to stand up to the Italians as he did, it is purely by chance that Bucky got polio.

    Then again, despite oracles and the like in Oedipus, there is plenty in that play to suggest that Oedipus is just the victim of chance, not fate, not destiny, and not of any curse. It’s his interpretation of the events that lead to his demise, and the same can be said about Bucky, particularly when we contrast his life post-polio to Arnie’s life post-polio.

    Interestingly, though, Bucky does believe he was cursed, despite the fact that he doesn’t believe in the god he rails against. He cannot accept that this sickness and his role in it were pure chance. Someone has to be responsible — him, and someone else who did it to him. When he finds out that others in the camp are contracting polio, and that he is the likely cause (though, again, who knows?), he takes the blame, as did Oedipus (and again, who knows if that was wisdom or folly brought on by a poor, perhaps superstitious, interpretation of events). However, unlike Oedipus, who submits humbly to the gods, Bucky becomes enraged and redirects that blame at god.

    In their responses, he and Oedipus are polar opposites; but in their perspectives on the events leading to the exhile, I think they’re fairly similar.

    As you point out, it is not a perfect match. But I think there is enough to go on that the Greek view of fate and chance is satisfactorily explored by seeing where the similarities and contrasts lie.

  19. Liz from Literary Masters July 23, 2011 at 1:00 am

    Trevor, you recommended The Ghost Writer to me as a possible choice for my book groups to read. Although I thoroughly enjoyed it, I’m not sure it would be the best selection for my groups. Then I picked up The Counterlife, and again, I don’t feel it’s right for my groups. I’m only half way through, liking it, not loving it. However, I just finished Nemesis, and absolutely loved it. I was wondering if it would be a good choice, and then I read the thread of comments here–a kind of book group meeting, if you will–and I am now thinking it would be a terrific choice. I have one question though, for you and the others who have commented about Nemesis not being one of Roth’s masterpieces. Which of his novels do you consider his best?

  20. Trevor July 26, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    Liz, my apologies for the late response! I’ve been quite busy and haven’t been tending things here as well as I’d like.

    My favorite Roths are The Ghost Writer and American Pastoral. I know a lot of people think The Counterlife is his masterpiece, but I’m not so sure, and I also wouldn’t recommend it to a book group. Similarly, I hear a lot of good about Operation Shylock, which didn’t do it for me, and for Sabbath’s Theater, which I have yet to read.

    Many I respect think The Human Stain is his best. Honestly, it may be the best for a book group. It’s themes — racism, sexism (or author’s sexism), political correctness, the 1990s — are interesting and, perhaps, easier to talk about than the ones in even American Pastoral. My main problem with that book is some of the overt preaching Roth spouts from some of his characters. A few of the minor characters were obviously there just to express vehemently a viewpoint. I still liked the book a lot, but it didn’t have the same artistic integrity for me that I found in The Ghost Writer and American Pastoral.

    Out of curiosity, why not The Ghost Writer?

    Also, I tend to agree that Nemesis would be a good book club book, and of the tetralogy probably the best suited to such purpose.

  21. Liz from Literary Masters August 11, 2011 at 9:38 am

    Hi Trevor,

    My turn to apologize–I’ve been away and not connected to any device, just like olden times! Thanks for your thoughtful response; I really appreciate it. I’m not sure why I think The Ghost Writer won’t suit my groups–although it has many of the themes that show up in other Roth novels, I don’t know how readily discussable (is that a word?) they are from this novel. I think we’ll be able to ‘dig deeper’ and have more fruitful discussions from Nemesis. Anyway, we’ll see. I enjoyed The Human Stain years ago, but have never read American Pastoral–one of these days I would like to do so. It seems like that is the most read Roth novel, perhaps because of its winning the Pulitzer.

  22. Liz from Literary Masters October 21, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    Trevor, my LM book groups just finished reading Nemesis, and we had some of the best discussions ever! Thanks so much for your review that prompted all the great comments above–that’s what led me to choose this wonderful book. It was even better the second time I read it. For your fans who are members of book clubs, here’s my take on it:

  23. Trevor October 21, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    Thanks for the link, Liz, I’m thrilled it went so well!

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