Philip Roth has done it again! For his 32nd book, America’s outstanding writer has once again demonstrated his mastery of the short novel with his newest contribution, Nemesis. This achievement is especially noteworthy since Roth is now 77 years old, but advanced age has not dimmed his unusual capacity to engage and delight his readers. Perhaps one noteworthy effect of Roth’s age on this new book is the atypical omission of the steamy sex scenes that are a feature of his previous books. To be sure, there are two instances of sex but these are minimally described and can hardly offend those readers who objected to Roth’s preoccupation with sex in his other works.
The theme of this new book is the polio epidemic of 1944 in Newark, New Jersey, Roth’s former home. Weequahic, the Jewish section of Newark, where Roth grew up, was struck by a large incidence of the disease, including several deaths. Roth was eleven years old at the time so that his personal recollections probably play only a small part in the book. Roth acknowledges his indebtedness to several books on the subject as well as on related topics that figure in the story.
Roth’s protagonist is Bucky Cantor, the playground director in Weequahic during the summer of 1944. He was the 23-year-old graduate of a physical education program and a superior athlete, especially in those sports such as diving, javelin throwing and weight-lifting that did not require good vision. His vision was so poor that he was rejected for military service in America’s armed forces during World War II. .
Cantor’s mother died in childbirth and his father served two years in prison for stealing from his employer to cover his gambling debts. He then disappeared except for a brief failed attempt to get Cantor to live with him after he remarried. Cantor was raised by his grandparents, immigrants from Galicia, who made sure that he had a bar mitzvah. By 1944, Cantor’s grandfather was dead and he lived with his grandmother.
Cantor was popular with the boys who came to the playground and his affection for them produced a mutual regard that was challenged when a number of the boys came down with polio. The interaction among Cantor, the boys and their parents, especially those whose sons died, became problematic as the epidemic grew in virulence and in number of victims.
With considerable guilt, Cantor left the playground to become waterfront director at a camp in the Poconos where his girl friend, Marcia, was a counselor. The job had become open when its occupant was drafted and Cantor’s girl friend importuned him to take the job. The tragic consequences of this decision and its impact on the relationship between Cantor and Marcia occupy the rest of the narrative.
Once again, Roth explores the consequences of the choices we make during the course of our lives. The superb character portrayal that results from this examination is a prime example of Roth’s dazzling literary skills. Moreover, the book demonstrates that Roth can write without raunchiness and without self- hatred.
Ever since he published Goodbye Columbus in 1959, Roth has received numerous prizes although, thus far, the Nobel Prize has eluded him. The quality and the quantity of his work more than justify his receiving this award. His new book adds to the luster of his well-deserved reputation and adds still another argument in favor of his becoming a Nobel Laureate.
(Dr. Morton I. Teicher is the Founding Dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and Dean Emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)