Friday, October 15, 2010


Philip Roth, Nemesis (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010). 280 pp. $26.00.

In the front matter to his latest novel, Philip Roth groups together the four short novels that he has written since 2006—Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and now this latest one—under the subsuming title “Nemeses.” Whether the novel called Nemesis is intended to be the key to the whole project, or its final addition, Roth does not say. Its publication invites a backward glance over the tetralogy, however.

The name of the mythological divinity, the goddess of vengeance, derives from the ancient Greek word for “righteous indignation,” which was Marcus Messner’s downfall. The very title of The Humbling describes what the goddess delights in doing to the proud and overbearing. The classical historian Victor Davis Hanson explains the process: “[O]verweening success and surfeit (koris) lead to hubris (gratuitous arrogance), which in turn promotes destructive behavior (atê), that at last calls you to the attention of divine Nemesis—who ensures your ruin.”

The novel called Nemesis may be the most disturbing of the series. In both Indignation and The Humbling, the protagonists invite their reversals. They themselves plant the seeds of their own destruction, even if it is the goddess in the disguise of a North Korean solider or a lesbian lover who delivers the promised end. The main character of Nemesis, by contrast, does not engage in any destructive behavior until his happiness has already been destroyed. After that, his life is stalled in the acceptance of responsibility for something over which he had no control. The proximate cause of his ruin is a baffling amoral virus.

Bucky Cantor is the playground director at Chancellor Avenue School during the summer of 1944 when a polio epidemic sweeps over the city of Newark, killing several of the boys under his supervision in the Jewish section of Weequahic. Twenty three at the time, Bucky is a powerful and athletic young man—he threw the javelin at Panzer College—although bad eyesight has kept him out of the Army and the war.

When the disease known at the time as “infantile paralysis” begins to attack Newark children, Weequahic is passed over. The first cases appear in June in the Italian section of the city. One day in July two cars pull up to the playground and a gang of teenaged Italian boys piles out. Bucky runs across to ask what they want. “We’re spreading polio,” the gang’s leader says. “We don’t want to leave you people out.” Bucky crosses his arms and plants himself between the Italians and the younger boys on the playground—one against ten. By the time the police arrive, the teenagers have amscrayed. His courage makes him a hero to the Jewish boys:

His confident, decisive manner, his weightlifter’s strength, his joining in every day to enthusiastically play ball right alongside the rest of us—all this made him a favorite of the playground regulars from the day he’d arrived as director; but after the incident with the Italians he became an outright hero, an idolized, protective, heroic older brother, particularly to those whose own older brothers were off in the war.At twenty-three, as he says later, Bucky is “stunned by so much happiness”—a job he loves, taking care of boys he inspires, engaged to a first-grade teacher at Chancellor Avenue School, who adores him. Too much happiness, as it turns out. Two boys from the playground are rapidly stricken with polio and die within days. Weequahic is ready to blame the Italian teenagers, but Bucky knows better. “Polio is polio,” he tells his fiancée tautologically—“nobody knows how it spreads. Summer comes and there it is, and there’s nothing much you can do.”

As the disease spreads its net over Weequahic, Bucky tries to offer comfort and strength to the families whose children have fallen ill, although he has no answer to their question, “Why does tragedy always strike down the people who least deserve it?” He finds himself turning against God, increasingly unable to “truckle before a cold-blooded murderer of children.” But when he phones one mother with condolences, she turns on Bucky. She accuses him of endangering her two sick boys. When he tells her that he is careful with all of the boys, she shrieks:So why do I have two paralyzed children? Both my boys! All that I’ve got! Explain that to me! You let them run around like animals up there—and you wonder why they get polio! Because of you! Because of a reckless, irresponsible idiot like you!She is hysterical, of course. “Running around like animals” has nothing to do with the transmission of polio. Bucky is distraught at the accusation; he is incapable of shrugging off a charge of irresponsibility; and so he flees to the Poconos, where he joins his fiancée at a Jewish youth camp. Within days of his arrival, an athletic young counselor with whom he had been working out contracts polio and is rushed to the local hospital. “[A]m I the one who gave it him?” Bucky asks the doctor. “Am I going to give it to others?” He is tested to determine whether he is a “healthy infected carrier,” and his spinal tap comes back positive. Within forty-eight hours he too is stricken.

Polio leaves him with a “withered left arm and useless left hand,” and damage to his left calf that “caused a dip in his gait.” He quits teaching, breaks off his engagement (“She hadn’t fallen in love with a cripple, and she shouldn’t be stuck with one”), takes a job at the post office, and lives the remainder of his life alone. Many years later, the novel’s narrator, one of the Weequahic boys who was partially paralyzed by polio but survived, asks Bucky why he has withdrawn from life. “I was the Typhoid Mary of the Chancellor playground,” he says. “I was the playground polio carrier.” When the narrator protests that the sentence is much too harsh, Bucky shrugs. “Whatever I did, I did,” he says. “What I don’t have, I live without.” When the narrator asks about his fiancée, Bucky says that he hopes that she and “whoever she married” enjoy happiness and good health. “Let’s hope their merciful God will have blessed them with all that,” he says, “before He sticks His shiv in their back.”

Bucky blames himself for carrying the polio epidemic to Weequahic and the Poconos, but for his own defeat he blames God, “the source, the creator . . . who made the virus.” In the end, though, the question is open whether the source of his ruin is really the creator of polio, or the unrelenting self-blame from which Bucky cannot free himself. As he nears eighty, does Roth find himself turning against God? Aghast at the reckless idiotic tragedy that is human life? Or does he remain endlessly fascinated by the infinite number of ways in which man can act as his own nemesis?


Richard Barager said...

Thank you for your typically fine and thorough review. I have linked to it on my literature and medicine blog as part of an article I wrote concerning this novel and the meaning of human illness.

The drama of medical illness has an arc much like the arc of any story, with the patient as the protagonist and that patient's Aristotelian-type critical choice having consequences that help determine what that patient's illness means. Bucky's choice to live a solitary, joyless life bestowed his illness with tragic meaning, but it needn't be that way.

In my capacity as the medical director of a dialysis clinic, I have had the pleasure of meeting a young man who, when faced with a medical catastrophe of equally dire proportions—end stage kidney disease—bestowed a very different meaning on his illness than did the fictional Bucky. His name is Shad Ireland, and he is the first dialysis patient to have ever completed a true Ironman triathlon: a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike race, and 26.2-mile marathon run.

Can you imagine? A dialysis patient doing an Ironman? Are you kidding me?

In Shad's own words, "A person's attitude toward their illness has a huge impact, not just on what they can achieve, but on their total quality of life...My motto is 'No limitations, only inspiration.'"

If only Bucky had known Shad.