Direct, Straight and Plain
by Mike Ettner
by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pp.
“Nemesis” is an old-fashioned novel. The book has the glow of a twilit, though painful, reminiscence. It is set in the Jewish Weequahic section of Newark during the war year of 1944. Roth imagines the community suffering through a devastating polio epidemic that cruelly maims and kills its youngest members. The protagonist is Bucky Cantor, a young man, a stalwart common man, whose decision to abandon his post as summer playground director will have fateful consequences.
Advice from an Elder
Very early in his career Roth sent to Saul Bellow a draft of a short story he was trying to get published, asking the elder writer for comments and advice. One of the remarks in Bellow’s 1957 letter responding to Roth (included in “Saul Bellow: Letters”, slated for release on November 4) stands out: “My reaction to your story was on the positive side of the scale, strongly. But mixed, too. I liked the straightness of it, the plainness.” A half century later, Roth’s new novel respects Bellow’s preference. Direct, straight and plain, “Nemesis” unfolds in a manner you may not immediately associate with Roth. It is as if, having chosen to set his tale in the mid-twentieth century, Roth decided to set aside the signature style and quirks he’s perfected in the last few decades, and, instead, hark back to the American literature of that earlier period, embracing its feel and direction. For me, that embrace is one of the pleasures of this short novel.
The straightforward narrative of “Nemesis,” which follows the traditional path of exposition, rising action, conflict, and aftermath, eschews the inventive and experimental course Roth took in some ambitious novels of the 1980′s and 1990′s, notably “The Counterlife” and “Operation Shylock.” The surprisingly plain voice of the new novel, narrated not by some maniacally garrulous Nathan Zuckerman type but by an even-tempered, practical-minded witness (who later reveals himself to have been one of the Newark child polio survivors), imparts a classic balance to the proceedings. Also un-Roth-like is the absence of ethnic satire (the Jewish community is lovingly portrayed). Readers expecting to encounter Roth’s comical eye for the worst in people, a celebration of rebellion, a sexual adventurousness, will be disappointed. Also, though fulminating anger abounds (Bucky repeatedly shakes his fist at a God “who spends too much time killing children”), that energy may not be sufficient for some readers who may very well find the book lackluster and timid.
A throwback to the last century
In its style (earnest and unfussy) and in its themes, “Nemesis” reminds me of the classic mid-20th century American fiction that has long been a staple of high school English classes — especially the books, stories and plays featuring common men, ordinary Joes who meet tragic ends. “Nemesis” shares with Steinbeck’s “The Pearl,” Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” and Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” the theme of the vicissitudes of fate and the contingency of our existence. Roth shares with those authors and their social realist contemporaries — the writers who commanded the stage when he was young — an interest in the way the world at large shapes our private lives and how accidental forces shape individual destiny. If you still have a fondness for those books — maybe because they were the vehicles through which you first learned to read and interpret critically — then you are bound to like “Nemesis.”
“Nemesis” is unafraid to tackle the moral dimension of our actions and lives. We are witness to the corrosive effects of resentment, self-pity, suspicion and rage. By book’s end we have come to realize all of us are carriers of disease — “bringers of crippling and death” — if not in a literal sense then in the guise of anger, hate, spite and selfishness. Roth raises anew the old questions: What is our responsibility to our fellows? Are we all to blame? One is reminded of Arthur Miller, especially the stark examination of these issues in his play “Incident at Vichy,” set in World War II. Are we left with the impossible choice between either resigning ourselves to the suffering of others, or taking on a responsibility whose dimensions doom us to failure?
The draft short story Roth had shared with Bellow back in 1957 reminded the elder writer, in one respect, of “The Plague” by Albert Camus, a book Bellow disliked. He warned Roth against writing stories too beholden to a controlling idea: “I have a thing about Ideas in stories. Camus’ The Plague was an IDEA. Good or bad? Not so hot, in my opinion.” I’m not certain exactly what Bellow meant by this; my guess is that he was warning against turning the text into a (mere) parable. And yet there is no mistaking the correspondences between the fictional devastation visited upon the inhabitants of Camus’ Oran and Roth’s Newark, and contemporary or near-contemporary events in Europe. As the writer Abraham Verghese observed in his recent review of Sigrid Nunez’s “Salvation City” (a novel set in a near-future America consumed by a flu epidemic): “An epidemic makes such a great backdrop for a novel.” In reaction to a disease that with shocking speed maims, paralyzes, and kills a community’s “beautiful children,” Roth depicts society’s descent into fear, apprehension and suspicion of outsiders, a course that ends, appropriately, in a search for meaning.
One final note: the pages of “Nemesis” close with the narrator’s achingly beautiful memory of an afternoon near the end of June, 1944, before the epidemic seriously took hold of the city, when the Chancellor Avenue playground boys gathered to watch Bucky Cantor demonstrate the throw of a javelin. He writes: “None of us had ever before seen an athletic act so beautifully executed right in front of our eyes. Through him we boys had left the little story of the neighborhood and entered the historical saga of our ancient gender.”
Time will tell, but “Nemesis” could emerge as the one classic Roth novel all of us should read.
Co-posted with Mike Ettner’s Blog