Roth Unleashes Polio on School Playground, Plays God: Review

The cover jacket of "Nemesis" by Philip Roth. Source: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via Bloomberg

Since 2006, Philip Roth has been turning out short, devastating novels at the rate of one a year. Now he has come up with a collective name for them -- Nemeses -- taken from the title of his newest one, a disturbing story about polio in 1944. It’s called “Nemesis.”

Nemesis was the shadowy Greek goddess of retribution, and these books tell terrible stories of destruction and, usually, death. The name is sometimes translated as “righteous anger,” yet there’s no righteousness in the fates Roth visits on his characters, who suffer, like real people, regardless of their goodness or their failings.

These are stories about the enigma of misfortune. Plato called us playthings of the gods; Roth plays god with his characters, cruelly. And it sometimes seems as if he’s cruelest with those who are most blameless, like Swede Levov, the heartbroken father at the center of the 1997 “American Pastoral,” and, now, the “profoundly decent” young hero of “Nemesis.”

Twenty-three-year-old Bucky Cantor is the new gym teacher at a Newark school and the school’s summer playground director.

Comrade, Leader

Mr. Cantor, as he’s called throughout -- because the story is narrated by one of the boys who was under his supervision during the terrible summer of 1944 -- is “the most exemplary and revered authority we knew, a young man of convictions, easygoing, kind, fair-minded, thoughtful, stable, gentle, vigorous, muscular -- a comrade and leader both.”

He’s the kind of virile, physically fearless man Roth admires, and at the same time the kind of irony-free, less-than-brilliant good citizen for whom Roth doesn’t mask his pity and contempt. The author describes Mr. Cantor’s life of good works with the tenderness and warm nostalgia he habitually brings to his memories of Newark, the city of his youth.

But this is also the Roth who’s as dry-eyed and implacable as an executioner. The novel begins on a note of foreboding: “The first case of polio that summer came early in June ...” The dread mounts gradually until, at a few points, I had to stop (as I’ve had to in all of Roth’s recent books) to remind myself that what I was reading was only a story.

Romancing Miss Steinberg

There’s beauty, too -- in the charming depiction of Mr. Cantor’s romance with a first-grade teacher named Marcia Steinberg; in descriptions of the landscape at a Jewish sleep-away camp in the Poconos; and, always, in the lush, unhurried prose.

And in a fireside ritual at the camp, with most of the kids in Indian get-up and the biggest one costumed “in somebody’s mother’s old fur coat” as “Mishi-Mokwa, the Big Bear” (“‘I am fearless Mishi-Mokwa,’ Jerome growled from within the coat. ‘I, the mighty mountain grizzly, king of all the western prairies’”), there are flashes of the humor, at once mean and irresistible, for which Roth used to be famous.

But in this book the beauty and the humor are muted.

“Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not,” the author writes, laying out his theme near the end. “Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance -- the tyranny of contingency -- is everything.”

If those words, so utterly lacking in religious comfort, were a little less colloquial, you might mistake them for lines from one of the Greek tragedians. They didn’t do comfort, and neither does Roth. He never has.

This unnerving book dwells, like the short novels that preceded it (and the long novels that preceded them), at the pinnacle of American writing.

“Nemesis” is from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (280 pages, $26). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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