January 2011

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             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 more—shall we say—substantive?—matters.  In this book—Nemesis—the 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.

       Bucky 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 theUnited States. Some howBucky felt disgraced.  His memory of his recently deceased grandfatherhaunted him.  “Mr. Cantor felt as though he had let him down and failed to meet the expectations of his undeflectable mentor. . …. He hadn’t been lifting weights since early adolescence merely to be strong enough to hurl the javelin---he had made himself strong enough to be a marine”.When he is rejected  in the vast military mobilization andhis two closest buddiesare in uniform his grandmotherin another room cojuld hear Bucky’s soft teary crying.

       Bucky 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 Newark.He was an excellent athlete with great skill in hurling the javelin, which was about the same length as his muscular short physique.He was inherently easily interactive with the young high school boys under his care,enjoying improving their skills inathletic endeavors and playing at fill-in postions whenever necessary in their daily summer baseball sessions in the school yard.  But events inevitablyimpelled him onward and upward.  Notably the increasing spread of infantile paralysis, whichoriginally had spared much of upper class Weequahic.Soon after the summer school session began two cars pulled up at the playground main entranceand the tenoccupants—all from a lower class Italian Newark tenement area—boasted about spreading the polio virus around.  “”We’re spreading polio.We don’t want to leave you people out.”While talking boastfully this insolent group made sure of spitting purposefully all around.But Bucky stood his ground, even advancing almost eye to eye with the main, leering spokesman and telling him that his group of trouble makershad better leave immediately, or “I”ll give you ten seconds to turn around  and move everybody out of here….or I’ll get the cops to getyou  out and keep you out.”Then he matter of factlytold his silently watching nearest student, “ ….Jerry, run to my office. Telephone the police.Say you’re calling for me. Tell them I need them.”The police responded very quickly,                                but evenin that short time the two carloads of ominous Italians had disappeared and never returned, evidently much impressed with Bucky’s calm, decisive manner.To the neighbors who already were aware of this impressive summer performance as school playgrounddirector his confident confrontationwith the Italian hoodlums made him an “outright hero, an idolized, protective,heroic older brother,particularly to those whose own older brothers were off in the war.”  

       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 Newarks’s history.They hold frequent late nightphone 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 supportedby Marcia’s father, the muchrespectedDr.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.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. “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?”

       And for awhile his decision of retreat from the growing Newark polio epidemic and scorching sun into the soft pseudo benign Pocono sunlight seems valid and the campers idolize him andhis javelin throwing and almost faultless, graceful diving. But very soon hisprime diving pupil,and then Bucky himself,contractthe dread disease.  And Bucky’s rehabilitation was long and only partially successful; basically wheel chair bourne and one arm paralyzed.  But far worse was his spiritual entombment.  His fiancée, Marcia begged and pleaded to continue with their marriage plans,but he refused to burden her with his almost completely voidprospect of normal fatherhood and maleness.Somehowhe felt guilt for his condition,a fantasy not uncommon among many afflicted victims.  In the end he is confronted by another afflicted polio victimwho did marryand have a viable union with a wifeand two children,someone who was able to live beyond the harsh confines of his affliction and into the allure of life’s other challenges.  (With a very loyal wife, no doubt!)   

       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!   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. Roth’s characters are defiantly human and somewhat outsize but involved in dilemmas that we find most compelling,including the God one!