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.

Philip Roth's new book "Nemesis".

For years now Philip Roth has divided his work into categories. There are "Zuckerman Books" and "Kepesh Books" and even "Roth Books," a cluster that includes both memoirs and fiction, as well as the catch-all gathering of "Other Books," one that contains some of his best, like Sabbath's Theater. It's a quick way to make sense of a career that now spans nearly half a century. With this new volume, Roth has added another grouping: "Nemeses: Short Novels." Beginning with Everyman, these four works are haunted by questions of death and judgment. These haven't always gotten the best press. Despite their weighty theme, they have risked seeming not merely slight but regressive, books that married the grave to a goatish obsession with sexual detail—Roth, for better and worse, irrepressible as ever. A new sobriety marks Nemesis as very different from the preceding trio. Yet in lending the set its name, this curiously toned-down book provides the late-career quartet with a retrospective coherence.

Nemesis isn't the same type of goddess as Athena or Artemis, the kind we might paradoxically call a person, a figure with her own set of vanities and foibles. She is instead a personification, a principle: judgment, retribution, the enemy from whose hounding we can't hope to escape. Few myths attach to her as such—instead, she's a figure in other people's stories. She's what they fight against, though usually they describe it as something else. For the main character of Roth's new book, the improbably nicknamed "Bucky" Cantor, that force is called polio. Or at least that's how it looks at the start.

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Newark, N.J., in the summer of 1944. Roth's late work suggests that most of what's good about America resides in that place and period, and though we know from his earlier books that the opposite is also true—that home is the place you hate—Newark does seem to have lost its sting. In the last year of World War II, Bucky Cantor works as a gym teacher at the city's Chancellor Avenue School, where Roth himself was once a student. An expert diver and track star whose bottle-thick eyeglasses have kept him out of the Army, Bucky is someone who believes above all in duty and fair play. He has known since the age of 10 that manhood lies in the ability to do what needs doing—since the moment when, in the back room of his grandfather's grocery store, he found himself looking at a large gray rat. "His impulse was … to run," but the old man was out front with a customer, and so the boy reached for the coal shovel and knocked "the rodent on the skull."

Bucky's best friends have parachuted into Normandy, and he never stops wishing he could share their danger. The home front, however, provides him with a far more ambiguous struggle of his own. "The first case of polio that summer came early in June, right after Memorial Day, in a poor Italian neighborhood crosstown from where we lived." That calmly factual sentence isn't Bucky's; it seems at first to be the choral voice of the city itself, though later Roth will deftly particularize it. For Bucky the combat begins one day when two carloads of Italian-American teens show up on his playground, claiming that they've come to spread the disease around: "We got it and you don't, so we thought we'd drive up. …We don't want to leave you people out." Mr. Cantor stares them down, and to the boys on the playground no one could possibly seem braver. Before the Italians leave, however, they spit all over the sidewalk. Though Bucky washes the pavement down with ammonia, one of the boys in his charge almost immediately sickens and dies.

The day of the funeral is so hot that Bucky can't stop himself from thinking that the child is "roasting like a piece of meat in his box;" and his innocence of the larger world allows the echo of other deaths in 1944 not to seem too portentous. In this historical novel, Roth also gets away with echoes of his own post 9-11 moment. A second boy dies, and fear becomes hysteria, a dread of each day's news, a sense of powerlessness in a time that seems to have spun out of control. Individual precautions seem futile, which doesn't stop the citizens of Newark from wanting somebody to do something, anything—everything—to protect them. At least close the playgrounds to keep children from congregating, to spare them the temptation of sharing a Coke. The second boy's parents blame Bucky for his death—if he hadn't organized a ball game, it might not have happened. Others reassure him, but if he's not responsible, someone else must be, and at this point young Mr. Cantor begins to have a problem with God. He begins to worry away at the age-old question of suffering.

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.

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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