Nemesis, by Philip Roth

Purchased from Chapters.ca

Please grant me the privilege of backing into the review of this exceptional novel. I was born in 1948 and part of my earliest memories as a child are centred on polio, or rather, trying to avoid polio. Jonas Salk had not yet discovered his vaccine (that would come in 1955) so the threat of polio was very much part of my growing up — as I am sure it was for everyone of a similar age. I can remember as a child getting the first “jab” and how delighted my parents were — selfishly, I remember even better the first sugar cube with vaccine on it which was way better than a “jab” as far as I was concerned. And I will admit that, decades later, when Mrs. KfC and I lived only yards away from the Watson Institute in Sewickley, PA where Salk did his first tests, I was humbled by living so close to a location where something so important had been tested.

For those who weren’t there, polio wasn’t just having your mother say “don’t go to the swimming pool” or “be careful of anyone who coughs”; the experience was very much one of the world suddenly changing without warning. A best friend at Sunday School was, the next Sunday, no longer there — Luke had contracted “polio” and was in an “iron lung” and not at school and if he survived he would probably never walk again. When you are six years old, that is a bit of a shock. Welcome to the real world, Kevin. I don’t think there is any modern comparison (thankfully). This was a disease that stalked children (well, adults too, but we didn’t know that) and nobody knew how it happened or what could be done to stop it.

Philip Roth’s Nemesis is set a decade or so ahead of my experience, in Newark, New Jersey in 1944, but it vividly brought to my mind my own childhood. There is a war going on (actually two, considering both the European and Pacific fronts), but in Newark that summer the threat is neither the Nazis nor the Japanese, it is the epidemic that is striking the city’s children. While the global war is never absent from this short novel, the local war against whatever this polio is is what dominated concern.

Bucky Cantor is the 23-year-old playground director in the mainly Jewish area of Weequahic. His bad eyes have kept him out of the Armed Forces, despite his attempts to enlist. And as summer arrives, so does the “polio season”. You had to be there to appreciate this — summer was not just welcome warm weather, it was the paralyzing threat of polio, with all of the restrictions and threats that that involved. Weequahic has escaped things, so far. Mr. Cantor’s work (one of the attractive traits of this book is the way Roth uses different ways of naming his central character to indicate his status of the moment) has been disrupted by the arrival of two carloads of Italians from the East Side, where there have been a number of cases:

“What do you fellows want here?” Mr. Cantor said.

“We’re spreadin’ polio,” one of the Italians replied. He was the one who’d come swaggering out of the cars first. “Ain’t that right?” he said, turning to preen for the cohorts backing him up, who appeared right off to Mr. Cantor to be only too eager to begin a brawl.

“You look more like you’re spreading trouble,” Mr. Cantor told him. “Why don’t you head out of here?”

“No, no,” the Italian guy insisted, “not till we spread some polio. We got it and you don’t, so we thought we’d drive up and spread a little around.” All the while he talked, he rocked back and forth on his heels to indicate how tough he was. The brazen ease of his thumbs tucked into the front two loops of his trousers served no less than his gaze to register his contempt.

“I’m playground director here,” Mr. Cantor said, pointing back over his shoulder towards us kids. “I’m asking you to leave the vicinity of the playground. You’ve got no business here and I’m asking you politely to go. What do you say?”

“Since when is there a law against spreadin’ polio, Mr. Playground Director?”

“Look, polio is not a joke. And there’s a law against being a public nuisance. I don’t want to have to call the police. How about leaving on your own, before I get the cops to escort you out of here?”

My apologies for the length of that excerpt, but it speaks to the amazing eloquence of the entire novel. That exchange, read in 2010, seems ludicrous — let me assure you, in the times where the novel is set, it is a portrayal of high realism. And it is only one of dozens that I could pull from this amazing novel.

The first case of polio soon strikes in Weequahic. Was it the Italians who visited the playground? Is it the highly-polluted air of the neighborhood? Or perhaps the hot dog shop where a number of the victims had eaten? Or the lack of quarantine of effected houses? Maybe all the kids getting together — and sweating — at the playground? No one knows, but everyone has an opinion. Nothing is beyond suspicion.

Roth introduces all those possiblities in the first half of the novel and every single one of them brought back memories. Can you imagine, as a six or seven year old, what it is like to know that there is a life-threatening demon lurking out there and you have absolutely no idea what form it might take or how it might “get” you? Roth is a master of language and of controlling emotion and he builds this scenario with incredible skill — I felt like he had been there in my childhood, even though what he was describing was a decade earlier and a thousand miles away.

As Playground Director, Bucky is both concerned and guilted when a number of his charges are struck by the disease, a couple fatally. Surely there was something he could, or should, have done? He attends their funerals and the guilt that is laid on him there only makes things worse — is he part of the problem? The number of his charges is steadily shrinking as parents keep their children at home — but he still wonders just what his responsibility was, or is.

Which is where Roth takes this novel in a different direction at the halfway point and turns it into a more traditional work (and does that very well, I must say). Bucky has a girl friend, Marcia, a fellow teacher in his school-year job at the grade school. She is the daughter of a doctor and comes from a family much better connected than Bucky’s grandparents who have raised him. Marcia has a job at a summer camp — Indian Hill — in the Poconos in nearby Pennsylvania. The waterfront director has just been drafted and there is an opening which is perfectly suited for Bucky. The job has a lot of attractions, not the least being the idea that isolated, fresh air locations like the Poconos are supposedly polio-free. Oh, and there is also an island where he and Marcia would have some privacy.

It is at this point that Nemesis became, for me, more a novel than a reminder of childhood — and Roth made the transition perfectly. Bucky does go to Indian Hill and the novel enters a whole new dimension. He has a wonderful time, but is plagued by guilt throughout. And yes (SPOILER) he does contract polio while he is there, setting up the kind of conclusion that readers expect from a writer as talented as Philip Roth.

A number of readers whom I respect regard Roth as the best of living American authors — I can’t disagree, but I am less entranced than they are with his major works. On the other hand, I would say that Nemeses, the collected title he has designated for his latest four works (of which this novel is the last), represents an exceptional author at his very best. For me, the short novel (all of these four can be easily read in one sitting) draws out the best of Roth — and leaves him no room for what he is not good at. The four novels — Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis — are all exceptional, a writer at the very top of his game.

There is no doubt that my personal experience has colored my opinion of this book and I do not apologize for that. Indeed, for those of you who are not yet in your 60s, you need to read this to understand what those of us who are went through as children. I do feel indebted to an author who has brought back memories of my childhood so forcefully and effectively. And, for those who have disputed my previous concerns about Roth, I must admit I will be going back to his previous work for a reread with a whole new attitude. I think I might have missed something the first time around.

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22 Responses to “Nemesis, by Philip Roth”

  1. Trevor Says:

    Great to read your thoughts on this, Kevin, and I especially appreciate the personal angle. I cannot imagine a yearly threat like this, though I do remember a few outbreaks of rare diseases at my school which caused some panic, even though we understood them. I remember going to the gymnasium and standing in line for the innoculations, and I remember how relieved that made me feel. I really cannot imagine the fear of some unknown source of death, and particularly as a parent I’m grateful for that.

    I’m certainly with you on the strength of these four short novels. I loved each of them, and I think they are even stronger when read in relation to one another. I’m about to go back to Everyman, which I read a few years ago, just to see them all again.

    By the way, I can’t help but notice the lack of any mention of Camus . . .

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: Sorry — the personal memories overtook the readerly ones and I didn’t get around to referencing The Plague. The comparison there would be the way that the “threat” takes over all civil society and puts it at risk — without any rational support. Roth frames the issue in much more personal tones (which may be why I reacted so personally); Camus tends towards a more global response. Maybe in a year or so, I’ll reread this and consider it from that broader angle. :-)

    I do think the four novels in the Nemeses grouping are going to join Salinger’s work in my “weekend” shelving. As in, you can read them all in a weekend and know that you will get an ample return. I return to Salinger every few years — I expect I will be doing the same with this four since I loved them so much.

  3. Bob Parkins Says:

    Man, did that ever resonate. Well turned Kev.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Hey Bob, great to hear from you (for those who don’t know us, Bob and my relationship dates back into the 1960s but only gets revived in exchanges like this one). You are a few years older than I am — so I suspect it resonates even more for you. Do read the book.

  5. Kevin Neilson Says:

    Simply outstanding. Just when I thought I was done with Roth, you and Trevor come along and do this to me! Cheers, K2D2

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Kevin — I don’t think you will be disappointed.

  7. Tom C Says:

    My experience of Roth is that his books are to me “patchy”, with The Human Stain being toweringly good, while others verge on the mediocre. I am sure this is an excellent book – and your review is highly informative and authoritative as usual – but the subject matter is not one I would want to spend a lot of time with, being not all that keen on books which focus on illness.

    I was born one year after you and fortunately like you, vaccination no doubt saved me and many of my friends from the dreadful scourge of polio. I wonder what happened to those poor children who ended up in iron lungs? What technology replaced them eventually?

  8. leroyhunter Says:

    A really interesting perspective Kevin (and Tom). I’ve read so much praise for this that I broke my general rule and bought this despite having Indignation unread on the shelf.

    When it was reviewed on the BBC, Michael Portillo offered the opinion that it’s far superior to any of the shortlisted works from his stint as Booker chair (can’t remember what year that was).

    I’m a bit of a Roth amateur, I’ve only read 3, of which I really enjoyed The Plot Against America, didn’t really “get” American Pastoral and was impressed and exhausted by Sabbath’s Theatre. Following on from Tom’s comment, for such a towering figure he seems to divide readers, much more so then (say) DeLillo.

  9. dovegreyreader Says:

    Kevin this was such a pleasure to read:-)
    And you inspire me to make a start on Roth, I have always felt slightly daunted by his writing and I have no explanation for that…would this one make a good starting point?

    I do remember quite clearly how seriously these injections were taken when we were little. My mum had miraculously survived diphtheria as a baby born in the 1920s in the working class end of Liverpool, and the fear of these diseases still very real in the 1950s, I feel sure my brother and I were first in the queue.

    Interesting how blase many people have become about immunisations now and how many are declining them for their children. As the memories of the true scourge of these diseases fades it becomes increasingly difficult to inform that hard core of decliners of their worth and of course many of them are protected by the herd immunity offered by the rest of us agreeing to have them.

    I skimmed the second half of your post so may have missed significant bits about the book but I’ll be back when I’ve read it.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: The Human Stain would rank as one of my Roth favorites — and I do think this shorter novel has some similarities. While polio lies at the centre of the story, the bigger story is much more about how the broader community reacts to the uncertainty (that’s where I see comparisons with The Human Stain). And the latter half of the book — which I have rather given short shrift, I admit — is about how an individual reacts to his own behavior in those circumstances. I’d say that’s another Roth characteristic: the notion of individual responsibility and consequence (usually a version of guiilt).

    Leroy: I abandoned both Sabbath’s Theatre and The Plot Against America — my quarrel with Roth is that when he gets to the bigger themed books both language and story become annoyingly excessive. Whereas in the novels that I like (and American Pastoral would count), his focus on a single character — or family — tends to concentrate his strengths. That’s why I like the four volumes of Nemesis so much — the work is pared down to basics and never loses focus.

    dgr: One of the attractions of the four novels in the Nemeses set for me is that they all speak to aspects of our generation (albeit from a very American perspective). In many ways, I interpret that as Roth’s reflective contemplation of some of the driving influences that affected his life, with a particular emphasis on family. I think it is that contemplative quality that produced such a positive response from me. I don’t think they have to be read in order (although I did) — their “collective” nature is more one of underlying theme. Of the other Roth books, I’ve only really read some of the Zuckerman ones and the early novels, like Portnoy’s Complaint (which I barely remember). Others who know Roth better than I are welcome to supply a recommendation for a starting point.

  11. Trevor Says:

    I’ll supply what I consider to be a great place to start with Roth: The Ghost Writer. It is short, incredibly focused, and you get a sense of Roth’s irreverence without the excess he displays in other books. It’s also a great story about a young artist and how he approaches his calling amidst the restraints he sees around him, and what sacrifices are required and what unpleasant consequences (some deeply personal and interpersonal) come if you decide to throw off the restraints. Plus, if you like it, you have several more Zuckerman books ahead, including The Counterlife, American Pastoral, and The Human Stain. I liked them all, though, with the exception of I Married a Communist. A warning, though: my wife has tried to read it a few times and she just cannot see what I love about it. Others have come away more pleased with this recommendation.

    I do think that these later novels are also great places to start Roth, as well, but I don’t rate them as highly as I do The Ghost Writer.

  12. RickP Says:

    I began my Roth journey earlier this year and like dovegreyreader, I had avoided him previously. Trevor recommended starting with The Ghost Writer and reading the 9 Zuckerman novels in order if possible. Thanks very much for the recommendation, Trevor.

    So far I’ve read up to and including American Pastoral and it’s been a great reading experience.

    The Ghost Writer is a logical start but I prefer Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson. I loved The Counterlife. I liked American Pastoral but perhaps not to the level of praise it received.

    The first four Zuckerman short novels are in a single volume, Zuckerman Bound. You might want to start there.

    After Zuckerman, I plan to read much more Roth. From my small sample set, I think he’s an extraordinary writer.

  13. dovegreyreader Says:

    Many thanks for the suggestions, I have a few Roths on the way and will report back.

  14. William Rycroft Says:

    Such a pleasure to read this Kevin. Your personal response to the book, which filled your reading of it with far more resonance than my own, is what makes your review so enjoyable. Having had time for the book to mature in my mind it has certainly aged well, far more ambitious and successful than it felt whilst actually reading it.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Will: While I have always appreciated Roth’s ability to create fictionalized versions of his own experiences, I think that it is only in the four Nemeses novels that it has really landed in my own “gut”, so to speak. He is 15 years older than I am, but the way he has contemplated issues in these four (yes, they are all about death in one sense but there is so much more to each one of them) have really hit home in a personal sense. With that appreciation in my own mind, I am looking forward to going back to some of the previous work with a whole new frame of mind.

  16. Max Cairnduff Says:

    You make such a good case for these Kevin, you really do.

    Could you expand a little on what you think Roth’s not good at? From the comments I take it it’s when he broadens out his focus, that his art becomes less effective when on a less intimate scale.

    I have the same rule as Leroy, and I have a copy of The Ghost Writer yet unread bought at Trevor’s recommendation (and which I’m sure will be excellent). I’ll have to promote it up the pile so I can try these.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    What I think Roth is not good at:

    1. Crude sex — in a lot of the “big” books but I’d say Sabbath’s Theater was the worst (I abandoned it).
    2. Shallow politics disguised as deep thought, e.g. The Plot Against America, I Married a Communist. Here I find him boring more than anything else.
    3. And sometimes he just writes himself into uninteresting tangles and the language starts to swamp me.

    By contrast, I think he is at his best when he locates a finely-drawn character in relatively-confined circumstances, as he does in all four of the Nemeses novels and in books like The Human Stain. In criticism of myself, I think I overlooked this when reading the Zuckerman novels the first time (I’ve read most, not all, and am pretty ambivalent about them). Now that I have a more focused personal fix on Roth, I’d like to try them again. I don’t think there is any way I’ll get to giving Sabbath’s Theater or The Plot Against America another chance, but who knows.

  18. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That’s great Kevin, and very informative. Many thanks.

    If Trevor’s still about, Trevor, do you have any thoughts on Roth’s weaknesses?

  19. kimbofo Says:

    The only Roth I’ve ever read was The Plot Against America which I thought was fairly average. But having read your review, I’m inclined to add Nemesis to the wishlist. It almost sounds like a thriller in the way you describe the first part, where everyone is terrified of catching the disease.

    DGR makes an interesting point in that so many people today are blase about innoculations etc. I recently had a polio booster and a couple of my friends, who have children, raised their eyebrows as if to say “is that really necessary”?

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kimbofo: I think all four of the books in the Nemeses set are very good — I also don’t think they have to be read in order. Roth’s powers of observation and description (which I find much more interesting reading than his polemics) are extraordinary in this book.

  21. Liz from Literary Masters Says:

    I just finished Nemesis and now want to read the other three of this quartet. I loved the story as well as all the “big questions” the book tackles. Very thought-provoking and one of the best books I’ve read all summer. Not being a Roth expert, I asked over on Trevor’s site which of Roth’s novels are his “best.” From reading this thread of comments, I see that the answer to that question will depend upon who answers it! I did enjoy The Ghost Writer very much, but I think I’ll start with the rest of Nemeses and go from there.

  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Liz: I would not presume to offer a Roth “best” — there is simply too much undergrowth for every book to elevate one above the other.

    I do think the four short novels in the Nemesis quartet represent Roth at his best. For me, when he has to keep things short, he doesn’t wander into areas that I find boring or distracting.

    I’ve read most of the Zuckerman noels and am contemplating a project to take them on again, in chronological order. I don’t love Roth as much as Trevor does, but I certainly do respect him.

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