Philip Roth's Nemesis explores the perils of decency.

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 27 2010 7:00 AM

Not Letting Go

Philip Roth explores the perils of decency.

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Not surprisingly, these troubles say less about theology than they do about Bucky's own psychology. Roth isn't really interested in doing Job, and instead uses the issue to return us to one of the oldest of his own questions. He puts a temptress in Bucky's way, a fellow teacher named Marcia Steinberg, who's spending the summer as a camp counselor in the Poconos, and who now wangles a job for him as well—a job up in the clear mountain air, where polio seems unknown, and where he can find her on the dark summer nights. At first Bucky refuses; a responsible man would stay in Newark. But finally he can't resist Marcia's lure in a world where God himself seems to have skipped town. The consequences are predictable—that's the thing about a nemesis, the audience can always see what's coming. Or can we?

What marks the book as Roth's is the debate it enacts between responsibility and desire, between what one owes and what one wants--between being a good Jewish boy and seizing all the fruits of the world. We all know where the young Roth came down on that one, but the older writer has at times seemed a bit less predictable. Bucky Cantor owes something to the Swede in American Pastoral—another good athlete, with an athlete's belief in effort and reward—and part of the genius of late Roth lies in recognizing both the fundamental decency of such people and the utter inadequacy of their virtues. Probity, selflessness, stoicism in the face of suffering: In Roth's economy, these things may be admirable, but they get you exactly nothing. All Bucky's own troubles appear at first to arise from his decision to cut out for the hills, as though the book were an argument on behalf of responsibility. But a different man would manage those troubles with more grace, and what finally dooms him is his tight-lipped sense of duty. It poses an even greater danger to the self than do the greedy desires of a Mickey Sabbath.

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By Roth's standards, Bucky is a rather pallid hero, and he lacks, as Roth tells us, a sense of humor. In inflicting that weakness on his character, Roth denies himself his own best gift, as though he were trying to hop along on one leg. Yet Bucky is also the necessary counterweight to all the impulses of the author's best work. He's Roth's road not taken, and without people like him to press against, there would be no Portnoy, no Zuckerman. You have to recognize the bourgeois virtues before you can know their limits, and as he approaches 80, Roth himself seems to find a greater imaginative interest in going down that path than he used to. When you think about it, it makes sense that he saved the challenge of exploring a counterlife of deliberate self-limitation for the end.

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Michael Gorra teaches English at Smith. His books include The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany and, as editor, The Portable Conrad.

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