One of the most misunderstood American writers, Philip Roth, is also prone to getting under a reader's skin. Because he's a lightning rod for a such strong visceral reaction to him and his work, Shlomo Schwartzberg decided to delve into Roth's work with a superlative piece that uncovers what makes Roth so controversial and so essential.
|Author Philip Roth|
The fourth and final book in a series called Nemeses: Short Novels; Nemesis is, as indicated, a short novel (280 pages) but it's not a slight one. Having read only one of the other three books in that series, Indignation (2008), I can safely say that their themes are what occurs when bad things happen to good people. Roth, however, doesn’t examine that idea in a trite or obvious way but in such a manner that you’ll ponder the disturbing vicissitudes of fate and the supposed existence of a god who allows horrible events to happen to innocent people. That, at least, is the thinking of one Eugene Cantor, better known as Bucky, an athletic 23 year old, who in 1944 is a playground director in Newark, New Jersey (not coincidentally Roth’s birthplace, too).
Because of his weak eyesight, Bucky has been deemed ineligible for combat during World War Two, a state of affairs which troubles him deeply. He’s determined, though, to do right by his young charges, and teach them lessons in good health and fitness. That goal, however, is impacted when some of Newark’s young teenagers come down with polio, with two of them dying of the disease. (The disease is not always fatal, but it often cripples or maims those who get it.) A panicked Bucky now has to weigh his options; does he stay put in Newark out of responsibility and risk getting polio himself or listen to the increasingly desperate entreaties of his loving girlfriend, Marcia, and take up a post in a Jewish summer camp in rural Pennsylvania, far away from the disease that is laying waste to his city? His decision will play out in an unpredictably tragic manner.
|Polio patient receives a spinal tap|
What Roth is doing in all his books, in effect, is compiling an insider’s history of his country, uniquely filtered through the prism of his ethnic and religious community. Canada’s Mordecai Richler did the same in his literary career, though not to the same extent as Roth, and, like Richler, Roth ranges further afield than just his roots and links his ideas to universal human concerns, as all the best writers do. His creative output thus puts the lie to the contentious comments made about American literature by the Secretary of Sweden’s Academy, which annually awards the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2008, that august expert deemed American literature “too isolated, too insular,” which is likely why Roth has been denied the Nobel Prize he so richly deserves. That dismissal notwithstanding, Nemesis, like virtually all of Roth’s other works, superbly and vividly defines how America, and not just its Jewish citizens, actually lives – then and now.
- originally published on February 14, 2011 in Critics at Large.