January 2011

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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.  

        Bucky 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  United States.  Some how  Bucky felt disgraced.   His memory of his recently deceased grandfather  haunted 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 and  his two closest buddies  are in uniform his grandmother  in another room cojuld hear Bucky’s soft teary crying.

        Bucky 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 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 in  athletic endeavors and playing at fill-in postions whenever necessary in their daily summer baseball sessions in the school yard.   But events inevitably  impelled him onward and upward.   Notably the increasing spread of infantile paralysis, which  originally had spared much of  upper class Weequahic.  Soon after the summer school session began two cars pulled up at the playground main entrance  and the ten  occupants—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 makers  had 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 get  you   out and keep you out.”  Then he matter of factly  told 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 even  in 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 playground  director his confident confrontation  with 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 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?”

        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 and  his javelin throwing and almost faultless, graceful diving.  But very soon his  prime diving pupil,  and then Bucky himself,  contract  the 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 void  prospect of normal fatherhood and maleness.  Somehow  he felt guilt for his condition,  a fantasy not uncommon among many afflicted victims.   In the end he is confronted by another afflicted polio victim  who did marry  and have a viable union with a wife  and 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!    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!