Nemesis 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.