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.