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NEMESIS BY Philip Roth
Review by Sy Schechtman
Above is the title of the thirty first Philip Roth volume, mostly all first rate novels, indeed some clearly among the finest books of the last century. And the beginning of this century. And Roth has been amply rewarded with both fame and fortune except only for the missing Nobel laureate in Literature, sadly not available in these tenuous political times to a white, Jewish male, with the added incubus of American citizenship. Saul Bellow, the last American burdened by the triple stigma of white American Jew to win the Nobel Literature Laureate, in 1976, certainly merited that most prestigious award, and when he was almost 85 produced Ravelstein, a serio comic look at Allan Bloom, and the somewhat dubious culture of certain literary professors at Chicago and Harvard. Also it must be noted, l976 was far from the pariah time that we are in now among the culturally supersensitive anti super power literati of the Norwegian Nobel committee that comprise and award the still coveted literature award. Hopefully Roth is laughing, or at least smirking on his way to the bank or to other investments where he is stashing away the numerous financial returns his literary work has been blessed with. (Hopefully, too, he has not been cursed by the Bernie Madoff virus, so deadly to other American Jewish riches!)
Roth is a mere 75 and is dealing with more—shall we say—substantive?—matters. In this book—Nemesis—the almost total societal trauma of the plague of poliomyletis is front and center. Less than ten short years later, in l953, Jonas Salk discovered the Salk Vaccine, which almost completely eradicated this crippling and many times lethal disease. And centrally involved too so is young Bucky Cantor, really only Eugene in extreme youth, but honored by his grandfather with the nickname Bucky for his instinctive heroism of killing a rat in the basement in his small Mom and Pop grocery store and surreptiously removing it from the store behind the back of a customer but still with an approving look from his grandfather.
had a father in name only, really small
time petty criminal material and his mother died giving birth to him. He was blessed mightily, however, by strong, enduring grandparents; the grandfather with the dubious
physical trophy of a somewhat
disfigured nose from some disputes defending his Jewish heritage,
and his loving, angelic grandmother,
who together with her more disputatious
husband made a loving home for him.
Bucky, however, was shortchanged,
too, by nature because of his short
stature; he was only 5 foot six inches
tall, and was not draft eligible because of his very poor eye sight. And
this at the crucial time after the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor and
then Hitler declaring war on the
in the beginning is seen settling into
the unfortunate reality of his civilian status by determinedly pursuing a degree in physical education with
a summer precollege job as playground director in Weequahic, an upper class suburb of
Very much impressed, too, was his girl friend Marcia, who at one point expresses her intense love with the words “my man” over and over again as the entire message, so complete were her feelings for him. At this point it is the fateful summer of l944 and she is at camp in the pristine mountain air of the Poconos, as a camp counselor, while Bucky is the midst of the worst summer assault of polio in Newarks’s history. They hold frequent late night phone conversations, and finally Bucky is convinced that he should “defect” and leave his playground polio fight as hopeless, especially in the face of gradually mounting instances in the hitherto almost untouched Weequahic section. This position is supported by Marcia’s father, the much respected Dr.Steinberg----Bucky can’t do more against the unknown cause of polio then he already has in his well run summer program and joining up with her as camp physical director would be a most positive act. Bucky was torn with indecision and guilt feelings, however, but only after the bright sunshine of the morning after clearing of a violent storm does his decision seem finally feel confirmed. “I’m here, he thought and I’m happy….it’s all here! Peace! Love! Health! Beauty! Children! Work. What else was there to do but stay?”
for awhile his decision of retreat from the growing
What is so remarkable about Philip Roth is that he is able to vaunt his atheism persuasively but not insistently. With friends like God you don’t need any enemies! Many people are quoted in Nemesis questioning the cruelity of polio afflicting so many innocent and defenseless children. And, logically, the justice and mercy of a divine being who would create and then evidently senselessly and cruelly cause so much wanton destruction. But the utterly human response is still the theistic one---there but for the grace of God, go I. Roth’s characters are defiantly human and somewhat outsize but involved in dilemmas that we find most compelling, including the God one!