Philip Roth, Nemesis (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010). 280 pp. $26.00.
In the front matter to his latest novel, Philip Roth groups together the four short novels that he has written since 2006—Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and now this latest one—under the subsuming title “Nemeses.” Whether the novel called Nemesis is intended to be the key to the whole project, or its final addition, Roth does not say. Its publication invites a backward glance over the tetralogy, however.
The name of the mythological divinity, the goddess of vengeance, derives from the ancient Greek word for “righteous indignation,” which was Marcus Messner’s downfall. The very title of The Humbling describes what the goddess delights in doing to the proud and overbearing. The classical historian Victor Davis Hanson explains the process: “[O]verweening success and surfeit (koris) lead to hubris (gratuitous arrogance), which in turn promotes destructive behavior (atê), that at last calls you to the attention of divine Nemesis—who ensures your ruin.”
The novel called Nemesis may be the most disturbing of the series. In both Indignation and The Humbling, the protagonists invite their reversals. They themselves plant the seeds of their own destruction, even if it is the goddess in the disguise of a North Korean solider or a lesbian lover who delivers the promised end. The main character of Nemesis, by contrast, does not engage in any destructive behavior until his happiness has already been destroyed. After that, his life is stalled in the acceptance of responsibility for something over which he had no control. The proximate cause of his ruin is a baffling amoral virus.
Bucky Cantor is the playground director at Chancellor Avenue School during the summer of 1944 when a polio epidemic sweeps over the city of Newark, killing several of the boys under his supervision in the Jewish section of Weequahic. Twenty three at the time, Bucky is a powerful and athletic young man—he threw the javelin at Panzer College—although bad eyesight has kept him out of the Army and the war.
When the disease known at the time as “infantile paralysis” begins to attack Newark children, Weequahic is passed over. The first cases appear in June in the Italian section of the city. One day in July two cars pull up to the playground and a gang of teenaged Italian boys piles out. Bucky runs across to ask what they want. “We’re spreading polio,” the gang’s leader says. “We don’t want to leave you people out.” Bucky crosses his arms and plants himself between the Italians and the younger boys on the playground—one against ten. By the time the police arrive, the teenagers have amscrayed. His courage makes him a hero to the Jewish boys:
As the disease spreads its net over Weequahic, Bucky tries to offer comfort and strength to the families whose children have fallen ill, although he has no answer to their question, “Why does tragedy always strike down the people who least deserve it?” He finds himself turning against God, increasingly unable to “truckle before a cold-blooded murderer of children.” But when he phones one mother with condolences, she turns on Bucky. She accuses him of endangering her two sick boys. When he tells her that he is careful with all of the boys, she shrieks:
Polio leaves him with a “withered left arm and useless left hand,” and damage to his left calf that “caused a dip in his gait.” He quits teaching, breaks off his engagement (“She hadn’t fallen in love with a cripple, and she shouldn’t be stuck with one”), takes a job at the post office, and lives the remainder of his life alone. Many years later, the novel’s narrator, one of the Weequahic boys who was partially paralyzed by polio but survived, asks Bucky why he has withdrawn from life. “I was the Typhoid Mary of the Chancellor playground,” he says. “I was the playground polio carrier.” When the narrator protests that the sentence is much too harsh, Bucky shrugs. “Whatever I did, I did,” he says. “What I don’t have, I live without.” When the narrator asks about his fiancée, Bucky says that he hopes that she and “whoever she married” enjoy happiness and good health. “Let’s hope their merciful God will have blessed them with all that,” he says, “before He sticks His shiv in their back.”
Bucky blames himself for carrying the polio epidemic to Weequahic and the Poconos, but for his own defeat he blames God, “the source, the creator . . . who made the virus.” In the end, though, the question is open whether the source of his ruin is really the creator of polio, or the unrelenting self-blame from which Bucky cannot free himself. As he nears eighty, does Roth find himself turning against God? Aghast at the reckless idiotic tragedy that is human life? Or does he remain endlessly fascinated by the infinite number of ways in which man can act as his own nemesis?