Philip Roth’s ‘Nemesis’: The Case Against God and Man

Exactly halfway through Nemesis, Bucky Cantor makes a fateful decision to abandon his beloved Weequahic neighborhood of Newark to the ravages of a polio epidemic, and as you turn the page, you wait for Nemesis to appear—Nemesis, the Greek goddess of divine retribution, whose task it was to carry out the judgments levied by the gods upon mortal men, mainly for that sin of sins, pride. In Philip Roth’s latest novel, a tranquil idyll passes for roughly 80 pages after Bucky’s betrayal, and then, indeed, Nemesis appears in numerous guises: polio, death, self-pity and God.

Nemesis, like its four most recent predecessors, is a tightly-crafted story revolving around a single figure, Eugene “Bucky” Cantor, who is deprived of joining his friends in wartime, military service because of his poor eyesight. Bucky nonetheless has found his dignity and self-worth as an energetic phys-ed teacher and, in this summer of 1944, a playground director. A role model for the boys of summer, a physical specimen capable of warding off an anti-Semitic, prowling Irish gang, and a loyal grandson to the man and woman who saved him from repeating the criminal past of his delinquent father after his mother died during childbirth, Bucky is a good man with heroic virtues. It is the painful but illuminating task of this novel to expose how duty and goodness can turn bitter in the face of an enormous threat and misguided responsibility.

You can hear the echoes of Roth’s lengthier masterpieces, particularly The Plot Against America, which shares the same setting—Newark, New Jersey during World War II—and sense of perpetual fear caused by lurking, unseen antagonists. While that 2004 novel dwelt on anti-Semitism and its effects on a family in a history drastically different from our own, Nemesis details an epidemic and nationwide panic closer to the history we know. In 1944, thousands died of polio in states like New York, North Carolina and Kentucky; Newark was not necessarily ground zero for the disease but, in the vein of the novel’s terrified awareness of chance, it easily could have been. Like the fictional Roth family in The Plot Against America, Bucky sees danger at every turn of the corner in his once-safe neighborhood.

Bucky’s nickname, intentionally or not, alludes to the costumed sidekick of Captain America who appeared in the super-patriot’s 1941 debut as a teenage boy wonder fighting Nazis. Like his adventurer namesake, whose parents were also absent, Bucky Cantor lives in the shadow of greater men but has an important role to play in keeping the children of Weequahic calm and hopeful. He may seem doomed to a life of playing second-fiddle, but he can live with that, relying on what the narrator of the novel—not Bucky—describes as “an exacerbated sense of duty” though he is “endowed with little force of mind”.

Even if he can’t quite join the ranks of Roth’s thunderous army of Americans alongside Nathan Zuckerman, “Swede” Levov, Coleman Silk and Alexander Portnoy, Bucky is at least as compelling as Marcus Messner from the 2008 novel Indignation. Roth’s newest protagonist struggles to rise out of his lower-middle-class origins through his fiancé’s upper-crust family, and yet he’s perfectly happy teaching boys how to play baseball. His simple pleasures do not keep him from complicated apprehensions, as when he falls into the impossible questions of theodicy and fate.

This is uncharted territory for Bucky, who earlier in the novel is inundated by more questions he can’t answer, but as always he charges into the mystery. As the narrator describes it, “For someone who had previously found in diligence and hard work the solution to all his problems, there was now much that was inexplicable to him about why what happens, happens as it does.” Even the construction of that sentence shows the endearing clumsiness with which Bucky grapples not just polio but existential doubt.

It’s easy to forget that all of Bucky’s words are supplied to us by a second party, and that his more elegant spiritual inquiries and rants are translated, maybe even embellished. Who is speaking? Dipping again into the long tradition of peripheral narrators, Roth reveals early on that the voice belongs to one of the Jewish boys under Bucky’s care, and just before Bucky leaves town, the identity is disclosed: Arnie Mesnikoff, polio victim. Then Arnie disappears until the novel’s final act.

How, we’re left to wonder, does Arnie know all of these details? Is he, like Marcus Messner, speaking from beyond? Has he instead collected this story like Zuckerman, one of our literature’s great reporters, and has Bucky Cantor passed on into local legend? The answer should not be spoiled, but it is commonplace, plausible, and comes in the novel’s final and strongest section, “Reunion”, set in 1971.

Before that, besieged by doubt and helplessness, Bucky begins to lose his loose faith in God. Like his now-deceased grandfather, he has not been devout, but he has believed in the general goodness of God, and cannot reconcile these beliefs with the plague striking down Newark’s children. The scare has become epidemic and the toll has become unbearable for the stoic Bucky, who can only scrub down bathrooms and attend the boys’ funerals. Reciting the Kaddish at one such funeral, Bucky wonders, “How could there be forgiveness—let alone hallelujahs—in the face of such lunatic cruelty?” (The Kaddish, Bucky reflects, exalts “extravagantly, unstintingly, the very God who allowed everything, including children, to be destroyed by death”.) Here is Roth in his familiar, brutal finery, his most biting and honest eloquence: the great existential wondering which has tormented so many of his characters.

When Bucky’s girlfriend, Marcia Steinberg, offers what appears to be salvation—the summer camp where she is employed, pastoral Indian Hill in the Poconos, has had its waterfront director called up, and a replacement is needed—Bucky flees. He sees in Marcia and her family a chance to better himself, to find a family, to live the American Dream, and so the chance to go to Indian Hill is more than a cowardly escape from the polio. (It is that, too.)

His easy faith returns, faintly, as he fits into the job seemingly made for him. No longer expected to fight an enemy he can hardly understand, he instead guides young men in their swimming and diving, adhering to the mantra of Ernest Thompson Seton, co-founder of the Boy Scouts: “We follow out of doors those pursuits that, in a word, make for manhood.” This, Indian Hill’s director Mr. Blomback enthuses, is the “heroic human ideal”, in which Bucky finds initially some painful irony. It is cool in the mountains, though, polio seems far away, and Marcia is tanned. Bucky has proposed, to justify his betrayal of the children, and Marcia has giddily accepted. They slip away, tellingly, to an island where they make love under the stars, blissful in their unity—until Bucky cannot help yet again to express his misotheistic angst. Even this storm literally passes.

Like Polio, Query Is Contagious

As Marcia’s twin sisters, also safe at the camp, fawn over Bucky, and as he takes under his wing Donald Kaplow, an athlete as gifted as himself, and as the campers parade in their insensitive-to-modern-tastes Indian costumes, the reader can be forgiven for urging on the entrance of Nemesis. We are a cruel lot, thirsting for conflict the way a butterfly lands on Bucky’s shoulder and drinks from his sweat. Roth injects this pastoral getaway with as much foreshadowing and ominous music as he can—Bucky’s childhood friend dies in France, his grandmother reports, and more playground children are succumbing to polio—and we find ourselves aligned with both Bucky and his angry God, impatient for and fearful of the story’s inevitable turn. Something must happen.

It does. Before Bucky leaves for Indian Hill, he reasons that “He just had to get through three more days at the playground without contracting polio”, and whether or not he managed to do this will haunt Bucky the rest of his life. The teenage Donald Kaplow is suddenly sick, whisked away, and Bucky wonders if he has, in fact, brought the Weequahic polio with him to Indian Hill. Is he himself the nemesis, not unlike those white, European settlers who spread disease through the native population centuries before? He willingly accompanies a doctor to get tested; more cases bloom; the camp is shut down. Nemesis is swift, and she is severe.

Arnie Mesnikoff is here to offer Roth’s point of view, the argument against the case against God (or Greek goddesses). For the atheist, anger at God is like anger at Santa Claus, and the search for meaning in divine action is misplaced from the beginning. In a passage echoing the thoughts of young, fictional Philip Roth in The Plot Against America, Arnie says comfortably to himself:

Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not. Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance—the tyranny of contingency—is everything. Chance is what I believed Mr. Cantor meant when he was decrying what he called God.

Like polio, though, query is contagious. Arnie is not above doubt. Maybe, he thinks, Bucky did make a fatal error when he “abandoned the Chancellor kids”, and just maybe—that awful word—all the judgment Bucky suffered is legitimate. We’re left to wonder why it is that, like Nathan Zuckerman before him, Arnie has chosen to tell this story.

It’s in this brilliant final section where Roth unleashes his apprehension of human behavior and his ability to put meaningful oppositions realistically into the mouths of his characters. Some will find the ending a contrivance, perhaps, but it is moreso the hidden agenda from page one. Twice the elliptical Arnie refers to Bucky’s “biography”, and Nemesis is that biography, a genre reserved usually for those Great Men of History without whom our history is said to be incomplete. Roth is fully aware of this; Bucky, in fact, began the story as a broken hero without our knowledge.

Roth has been immensely prolific this past decade, to our great benefit. However, his quick pace may be diluting the uniqueness of his descriptions and his dialogue. In Nemesis, rarely does the writing surprise the reader; on his way to the Poconos, Bucky sees “horses and cows in the fields” and “a farmer on a tractor”, and earlier in the book, Roth writes that a “rat rose on its hind legs and gnashed its frightening teeth, deploying itself to spring”. These are phrases just about any decent writer could compose. The dialogue between Bucky and Marcia is sometimes wooden, to say nothing of the speeches Bucky delivers to the boys on the playground.

A defense of this can rely on the nature of point of view. Bucky’s perceptions are middling, his mannerisms stoic; he does not see many complications in other people, only in himself. Count this as another risk taken by Roth—that we will dislike and, worse, become bored with Bucky. Mickey Sabbath, David Kepesh: these men may revolt us, but in the way of great fiction, we cannot stop reading their words. Roth’s devotion has always been to his characters, and has never cared too much about dazzling the reader with surfaces, with wordplay and flashy language unless it serves the occasion.

Besides, for every concern above, a rebuttal: Marcia’s emergence as a richer character late in the novel; the detailed, soul-crushing portrait of the neighborhood’s mentally challenged drifter whose mittens, attached by safety pins, eternally go unused; or “the booming black nighttime Atlantic”; or when Yushy, the proprietor of a Weequahic hot dog shop says, to Bucky, “It’s dead around here”, and Bucky snaps, “It’s hot.” Then there is Roth’s use of dialogue exchanges compressed into a single, long paragraph, which he normally employs, it seems, to quickly get through necessary but informational passages. Early in Nemesis, however, the technique unnervingly enacts the panic of Newark’s citizens and the pressure with which they’re squeezing the life out of our hero.

Roth is one of the last American moralists, unafraid to plumb the depths of what the rest of us nervously refer to as our souls—or, if you like, the messy war which goes on between what we want, what we are capable of, what we know, and what we believe. Nemesis, along with Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008), and last year’s The Humbling, from what Roth recently called “Nemeses: Short Novels”, a quartet concerning personal disaster.

Crisis, aging, disease, futility, obstinance, regret, history—these have been Roth’s great subjects for the past six years. What makes Roth splendid and important is the way his fierce intellect dwells on these topics while abiding by the realistic, even mundane demands of fictional prose. Any grand statement is an utterly human performance, despite Roth’s authority with the written word. Religion, even the religion of atheism, is secondary to the chaotic struggle of existence, of mere being, whether in times of crisis or in our idylls (which are, in Roth novels, times between crises).

These systems of belief are, in Nemesis, as in so many of his other works, the surfaces upon which we gaze: the asphalt of a playground, a lake under moonlight, its diving board, the porch of a house earned by the goodness of a future father-in-law, the cold tile of a hospital floor. How can we be surprised when these turn out to be mirrors, when our case against God swells into the case against ourselves?

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