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NEMESISBY Philip Roth
Review by Sy Schechtman
Above is the title of the thirty firstPhilip Roth volume, mostly all first rate novels,indeedsome clearly amongthe finestbooks of the last century. And the beginning of this century. And Roth has been amply rewardedwith both fame and fortune except onlyfor the missing Nobel laureatein Literature,sadly not available in these tenuous political timesto a white,Jewish male,with the added incubus of American citizenship. SaulBellow,the last American burdened by the triplestigmaof whiteAmerican Jew to win the Nobel LiteratureLaureate,in 1976, certainly merited that most prestigious award, andwhen he was almost 85produced Ravelstein, aserio 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 amongthe culturally supersensitive anti super power literati of the Norwegian Nobel committeethat comprise and award the still coveted literatureaward. Hopefully Roth is laughing,or at least smirking on his wayto the bank or to other investments where he is stashingaway the numerous financialreturns his literarywork has been blessed with. (Hopefully, too, he has not been cursed by the Bernie Madoff virus,so deadly to otherAmerican Jewish riches!)
Roth is a mere 75 and is dealing with moreshall we saysubstantive?matters. In this bookNemesisthe almost total societal trauma of the plague of poliomyletisis 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 hisinstinctive heroism of killing a rat in the basementinhis small Mom and Popgrocery store and surreptiously removing it from the storebehind the back of a customer but still with an approving look from his grandfather.
had a father in name only, reallysmall
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
physicaltrophy of a somewhatdisfigured nose from some disputes defending his Jewishheritage,andhis loving, angelicgrandmother,who together with hermore 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 notdraft eligible because ofhis 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 settlinginto
the unfortunate reality of his civilian status by determinedlypursuing 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 pointit 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 Newarkss history.They hold frequent late nightphone conversations, and finally Bucky is convinced that he should defectand 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 supportedby Marcias father, the muchrespectedDr.Steinberg----Bucky cant 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.Buckywas torn with indecisionand guilt feelings,however, but only after the bright sunshine of the morning after clearing of a violent stormdoes his decision seem finally feel confirmed. Im here,he thought and Im happy .its 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 dont need any enemies! Manypeople are quoted in Nemesis questioningthe cruelity of polioafflicting 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. Roths characters are defiantly human and somewhat outsize but involved in dilemmas that we find most compelling,including the God one!