By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26, 280 pages
A specter is haunting Newark, N.J., in the stifling wartime summer of 1944, a time Philip Roth clearly remembers as he reaches back from his late 70s to summon up in his latest novel, “Nemesis,” a season he experienced when 11 years old. There is always something special when Mr. Roth sets a work in his hometown of Newark, perhaps because of the unique connection he still feels with a home turf “changed, changed utterly” since his youth there.
But this time, he is not summoning up some American pastoral version of “a terrible beauty;” rather it is an infernal vision: “… nothing was sheltered from the glare of the sun and where he thought he could see heat waves shimmering above the sidewalk. … It was one of those overpowering summer days when the thermometer registered an astonishing one hundred degrees. … no matter how high the temperature soared even the field’s asphalt surface began to feel spongy and to radiate heat … and the sun was so hot that you would think that rather than darkening your bare skin it would bleach you of all color before cremating you on the spot.”
Obviously, even after a lifetime, the heat of such a summer is imprinted on the authorial consciousness, inspiring such marvelously evocative prose.
But the particular menace that renders this heat sinister far beyond its hellish qualities is not the global conflict being waged far off but the vicious epidemic of polio that the season is incubating. One after another, boys who had been pictures of healthy vigor as they ran around playing ball even in the noonday sun sickened with shocking speed, becoming paralyzed in their limbs and sometimes in the chest muscles necessary for breathing. No one knew where the virus suddenly sprang from or why some children recovered, some but not all remaining paralyzed, while others died, sometimes after only a couple of days of illness.
“Nemesis” paints a vivid portrait of the deadly, terrifying swath that this epidemic cut through an especially hard- hit neighborhood. And it is not only the disease itself that Mr. Roth trains his sights on. As the novel’s narrator remarks, “Since nobody knew the source of contagion, it was possible to grow suspicious of almost anything …,” and certainly “Nemesis” demonstrates how nastiness of all sorts can rear up in such a noxious brew.
Ethnic hatreds, anti-Semitism, targeting of particular individuals, all start appearing. Mr. Roth is adept at showing how such attitudes can mushroom at times like these and how irrational they can be. But his particular genius as a storyteller is his capacity to mix in the ludicrous certain hard facts concerning contagion - polio is a disease that can have carriers who are not (yet) themselves symptomatic - which make his book not only an exciting narrative but a wise and cautionary tale as well.
Mr. Roth shows enormous skill in guiding his tale, exhibiting the grace notes that have become customary in his later fiction. The novel’s narrator is revealed in a low-keyed way partway through the book, laying the groundwork for his crucial role at the end of the story. When evoking the sights, smells and feelings of those far-off days, the writing is powerful and emotive.
The year 1944 was of course in the midst of World War II, and “Nemesis” paints an authentic portrait of a world in which the conflict naturally impinges - older brothers and friends are off at war, news of casualties crashing in, the protagonist, camp counselor Eugene “Bucky” Cantor is 4-F on account of very bad eyesight but tormented about not being in uniform nonetheless. Still, life for folk in Newark, N. J., is far less changed by the war than it is for citizens in other combatant nations overseas, and Mr. Roth captures this encapsulated world brilliantly.
For all its virtues, though, “Nemesis” is a curiously flawed work, especially from someone like Mr. Roth. Although as we have seen, his prose here can be both luminous and hard-hitting, some of the dialogue is amazingly weak: wooden, stilted, stiff, simply not even remotely credible on occasion.
Maybe this is because the narrator is just a regular guy, but if so it is an attempt at a virtuoso turn that simply doesn’t work. People just don’t talk that way and it is shocking to find stuff like this that would shame a neophyte novelist in one who has, throughout a long and distinguished career, been remarkable for writing dialogue so vivid that it fairly leaps from the page. And it strains all credulity that even an ill-spoken, anti-Semitic figure of deep prejudice would consistently and deliberately mispronounce Cantor as Cancer.
Mr. Roth is apparently grouping “Nemesis” along with the three short novels that preceded it under the heading “Nemeses.” Although the concept of nemesis does indeed apply to all of them in some way, it is, ironically, most problematic with the one that bears the actual title. The tragedy that is Bucky Cantor’s later life certainly owes something to the furies that, through no fault of his own, devastated his body. It is certainly they who so warped his mind with guilt and shame that he felt compelled to make the worst of a situation that might have been ameliorated.
But his inability to make the better if not the best of an admittedly tough situation, his decision to wallow in, rather than triumph over, adversity makes the novel end with a very bitter taste. A sour one, too, not helped by the novel’s shrill and puerile outpouring of hatred against Divine Providence, a burst of rage worthy in its intensity of the Book of Job but without its tragic force or magnificent language. “Nemesis” provides an unfortunate case study in the capacity of Mr. Roth’s desperate bleakness of vision to spoil what could have been a more powerful and certainly more edifying tale.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.