Philip Roth: Nemesis (2010)


There have been a few reviews of Philip Roth books recently (on Babbling Books here and here and on Book Around the Corner here) and because I commented on the one or the other posts saying that I didn’t like him, Leroy suggested I read Nemesis. The premise of the book sounded very interesting and so I finally read it. While I cannot say I’m a convert, I can still say that this is a very fine book and one that’s topical, well written and thought-provoking too.

The first thing I noticed, was that you can feel that this is an assured writer. You can feel it for many reasons. The most important one was that the writing seemed so effortless. It’s free of artificiality, flows nicely, contains many well captured scenes and the way it is told is quite wonderful. The book is told by a first person narrator, who appears only very briefly and then disappears and blends into the background of the story he tells. It isn’t his story and we will have to wait almost until the end of the book to find out who tells it and why. This is artful, and that’s why Nemesis is a great example that it’s worth to finish books because some really need all the pages to become a whole and to fully reveal their meaning.

It’s the summer of 1944. A scorching summer in Newark, New Jersey. Bucky Cantor is a young man, a physical education teacher who just graduated and starts his first job as a playground supervisor in the Jewish neighbourhood of Newark. It’s a summer job to which he has been looking forward to and which he executes with a lot of energy, enthusiasm and passion. Bucky is a small but strong and muscular man and if he wasn’t so terribly short-sighted he would be off fighting against the Germans like his best buddies Jake and Dave.

Bucky lives with his grandmother. His mother died in childbirth, his father, a thief, disappeared and the beloved grandfather has just passed away. But Bucky is by no means lonely as he has a fiancé, Marcia,  who comes from a rich Jewish family who accepts him and loves him just as much as Marcia herself does. Things look promising for Bucky if it wasn’t for a nasty, evil God, as Bucky sees it,  who decides to send the plague, in form of a polio epidemic, on Newark and the Jewish neighbourhood in which Bucky lives and works.This is 11 years before the vaccine is invented and Polio is a devastating disease. It’s not entirely clear how you contract it and while some forms are mild, most are not only crippling but can lead to death.

Roth does a great job at describing the panic, sadness, shock and horror that follow the outbreak of this epidemic. It has an absolutely devastating effect on the community of Newark and underlying racial and social tensions break out with a horrifying force.

While Nemesis tells the story of a disaster which strikes a whole community it also tells one man’s story and how he copes with disaster.

What I found amazing is the way Roth showed that in the end it’s far less important what befalls us but what really counts is how we deal with it. I can’t reveal too much or the book would be spoilt, let’s just say, that when guilt and blame come into the equation a bad situation can turn into a nightmare.

Disaster and how we cope with it isn’t the only theme in the novel. There are others like loss, regret and guilt which are all equally well illustrated.

Nemesis is a book which takes a while to develop its full aroma. I could imagine that the one or the other reader would find it a bit slow at first but it’s worth reading until  the end. While I’m still no Philip Roth enthusiast, I really liked this book and think I might pick up another of his novels some day.