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Life During Wartime

In Nemesis, Philip Roth conjures Jewish Newark amid a 1944 polio outbreak

Adam Kirsch
October 12, 2010
(US National Archives)
(US National Archives)

The award of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature to Mario Vargas Llosa was surprising only in being so belated; the Peruvian novelist has been considered a leading candidate for so many years that it seemed his chance had come and gone. Does this mean that Philip Roth—who has been America’s best Nobel prospect for almost as long—should keep hoping, despite the Swedish Academy’s well-documented disdain for American literature? For patriotic reasons, it’s hard to resist rooting for Roth to become this country’s first Nobelist since Toni Morrison, in 1993; but in literary terms, all prizes, even the most famous, are finally a kind of impertinence. It is a writer’s books, not his honors, that earn the attention of posterity.

A good definition of a major writer, in fact, is that even his bad books matter—if not for themselves, then for what they say about the mind that created them. Nemesis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26), Roth’s new novel, is a case in point. For the last six years, since the publication of his last great book, The Plot Against America, Roth has been producing short novels at an accelerating pace, but with declining powers. This is quite natural for a writer in his late 70s, and the subject matter of these works—impotence, old age, and death—are equally appropriate to the closing phase of Roth’s career. In the “books by” page at the beginning of Nemesis, we find that he has now grouped four of these recent books together in a new category: Along with the Zuckerman books, Roth books, and Kepesh books, each named after their protagonist/narrator, there is now “Nemeses: Short Novels.”

The new book, then, gives a name to this sequence, which also includes Everyman, Indignation, and The Humbling. As the word “nemeses” suggests, each is about a man brought low, by a combination of his own flaws, bad luck, and the relentlessness of time. But since the protagonist of each book is also a shadow-version of Philip Roth, these stories have a power in excess of their slight fictional achievement. In each case, Roth seems to be imagining an alternative fate for himself, a variation on his own life that ends in failure or disaster, rather than fame and glory. In Indignation, Marcus Messner actually speaks from beyond the grave—he is a young man who, tormented by sexual guilt, drops out of college and gets killed in the Korean War. And in last year’s The Humbling, Simon Axler is an aging actor who loses his self-confidence and virility and is ruined by his attempt to regain them in a last love affair.

Nemesis,the latest installment in this sequence, is also the worst. In part this is because of the thinness of the prose, which has next to nothing of Roth’s grand style—the indignant, self-justifying rant learned from Céline, balanced between laughter and fury. There are sentences in Nemesis that, in their expository limpness and characterlessness, seem to have no authorial mind behind them at all:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, polio’s most renowned victim, had contracted the disease as a vigorous man of thirty-nine and subsequently had to be supported when he walked and, even then, had to wear heavy steel-and-leather braces from his hips to his feet to enable him to stand. The charitable institution that FDR founded while he was in the White House, the March of Dimes, raised money for research and for financial assistance to the families of the stricken.

The language gives itself away: “renowned,” “vigorous,” “charitable institution,” “the stricken,” are all clichés, and the whole thing sounds like it could come from a history book for young readers. This may be a clue to the problem: Roth seems to be writing for an audience that has never heard of the 1940s—of FDR, polio, or D-Day (later on, we hear about how soldiers “parachute into Nazi-occupied France … against the stiffest German opposition”). Of course, this describes none of the likely readers of Nemesis, and the disconnect suggests that Roth has become too isolated—by age, fame, or habit—to successfully imagine his own audience.

The story, too, has a young-adultish plainness and didacticism. Bucky Cantor, the hero, is a 23-year-old P.E. teacher in the Jewish Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey—the setting of Roth’s own childhood, which he has explored in many books. It is the summer of 1944, and Bucky is working as a playground director, running baseball games for the neighborhood kids. And it’s through the kids’ eyes that we see him: Roth chooses to narrate the story in the voice of one of Bucky’s students, despite a good deal of narrative implausibility, because it allows him to halo the young teacher in childish admiration. When Roth writes that “His was the cast-iron, wear-resistant, strikingly bold face of a sturdy young man you could rely on,” you know that, as in a movie, countenance is character.

Bucky’s heroism is tested by an outbreak of polio in Newark, which claims the lives of two boys from his playground. At first, he is as plucky as his name requires, attending the victims’ funerals and comforting their families. Even more important, he tries to stop his neighbors from working themselves into a suspicious panic. At the time, Roth reminds us, it was not known how polio was transmitted, and as in The Plague, ignorance breeds paranoia. Did the dead boys catch the virus at a hot dog stand, or from a slovenly, mentally retarded boy, or from the spit of an Italian gang that trespasses on the Jews’ turf? Bucky keeps insisting that it is wrong to give in to fear, to blame the Other—a familiar moral to a familiar story, which unspools in foursquare Hollywood fashion. There is a tearful eulogy for an angelic child; a kindly, reassuring neighborhood doctor; and even a devoted girl for Bucky—Marcia Steinberg, the doctor’s daughter, who wants nothing more than to marry him.

But it is Marcia who turns out to be the cause of his undoing. She is working at a summer camp for Jewish children, far from the polio outbreak, and she arranges for Bucky to be offered a job there. His sense of duty—heightened by his guilt at being unable to fight in World War II, thanks to his bad eyesight—tells him to stay where the trouble is, even though realistically he can do nothing to stop the children of Weequahic from getting polio. But his love for Marcia and his instinct for self-preservation lead to him to accept the camp job. What ensues is an idyll, which—again as in a movie, a horror movie this time—becomes more frightful the more perfect it appears, since the reader knows that Bucky is not going to be allowed to get away with his transgression, no matter how minor. In the end, he is punished in a terrible fashion, and a coda, set decades later, shows that the events of that summer ended up ruining his entire life.

In only two ways is this story markedly different from a Hollywood melodrama of the period in which it’s set. The first is that, because the epidemic afflicts a Jewish community in 1944, there are faint but very deliberate reminders of the destruction even then being visited on European Jews. These echoes are the more powerful because Roth seldom insists on them. When rumors surface that Weequahic is going to be quarantined, for instance, the description of the plan—“They would close it off at the Irvington line and the Hillside line and then at Hawthorne Avenue and at Elizabeth Avenue. … They even printed a map”—sounds just like the way Jewish quarters were barricaded, for very different purposes, in Vilna and Warsaw. The image of Jews as disease-carriers, too, was central to the Nazi ghettos, and when it surfaces in New Jersey, the result is a historical vertigo like the one Roth created so effectively in The Plot Against America: “The anti-Semites are saying that it’s because they’re Jews that polio spreads there. … Some of them sound as if they think the best way to get rid of the polio epidemic would be to burn down Weequahic with all the Jews in it.”

The subject of Jewish suffering naturally leads to the subject of theodicy. Why, Bucky wonders, did God allow the children of Newark to be decimated? Why did He create the polio virus in the first place? This questioning is pitched at such a rudimentary level that it leaves the reader a little unsettled—surely Roth is not suggesting that taunts like Bucky’s (“Look, your God is not to my liking. … He spends too much time killing children”) are going to strike any reader with the force of a revelation. In the book’s last section, the narrator finally gets the chance to reproach Bucky in the way the reader has been doing silently all along: “this is nothing more than stupid hubris … the hubris of fantastical, childish religious interpretation. We have heard it all before and by now we have heard enough of it, even from someone as profoundly decent as Bucky Cantor.”

But if Roth realizes how melodramatically unoriginal Bucky’s story and Bucky’s thoughts are, why write Nemesis? The answer, as with Roth’s last few books, is simple and moving. He is writing these counter-deaths in order to prepare for his own death; he is writing because writing has been his life, and each new book is an extension and assertion of life. When we do start talking about Roth in the past tense—which may not be for many years—it is in this sympathetic light that, I think, his very late work will be viewed.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.