• Review
By – September 26, 2011

Neme­sis, Philip Roth’s 31st book, brings into sharp focus the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties inher­ent in child­hood. But as in most of his ear­li­er work, Roth does some­thing even larg­er here: he lit­er­al­ly ter­ri­fies us with a dark reflec­tion on the the tyran­ny of con­tin­gency” in life gen­er­al­ly. The cen­tral pro­tag­o­nist is the sen­si­tive and ulti­mate­ly trag­ic fig­ure of Eugene (Bucky) Can­tor, a 23-year-old play­ground direc­tor who wit­ness­es, and is deeply affect­ed by the polio out­break in the sum­mer of 1944 in the close­ly-knit Jew­ish neigh­bor­hood of Wee­quahic, New Jersey.

The virus is rav­aging his young charges with paral­y­sis, life­long dis­abil­i­ty, and even death. But Can­tor, taught by his immi­grant grand­fa­ther that Jews must be phys­i­cal­ly fit and fear­less, han­dles the stag­ger­ing real­i­ties of polio with equa­nim­i­ty, author­i­ty, and sen­si­bil­i­ty. Indeed, it was amazing…how long he had kept fear in check,” until after much vac­il­la­tion, he changes jobs to go to a sum­mer camp in the Poconos as direc­tor of recre­ation. Has he betrayed his kids” back home? This haunt­ing ques­tion sits at the core of the nov­el and gnaws at Can­tor, who mourns the deaths of his Wee­quahic boys, and reflects on the stu­pid ran­dom­ness of life. In the process, the pic­ture of fate in Cantor’s mind changes from an inscrutable to a lunatic God who takes delight in killing chil­dren. Worse, man­i­fest­ing para­noia and a touch of mega­lo­ma­nia, Bucky sees him­self as God’s part­ner-incrime,” spread­ing death in New Jer­sey and the moun­tains of east­ern Pennsylvania.

By a mas­ter­ful syn­the­sis of metic­u­lous­ly researched details and stun­ning artistry, Roth makes this hor­ren­dous nar­ra­tive pow­er­ful­ly com­pelling. And we are drawn into what reads like a Greek tragedy, where the virtues of integri­ty, hon­or, and respon­si­bil­i­ty are tak­en to extremes and become the vices of self-hatred, with­draw­al, and the impo­si­tion of pain on oth­ers. In the end Roth leaves us feel­ing that whichev­er gods are in con­trol, they wield their pow­ers with arbi­trary mys­tery and awful consequences.

Ger­ald Sorin is Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can and Jew­ish Stud­ies at the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York, New Paltz. His most recent book, Irv­ing Howe: A Life of Pas­sion­ate Dis­sent,” won the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award in His­to­ry. He is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a biog­ra­phy of Howard Fast.

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