'Nemesis' never fulfills promise

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 14, 2011

“Nemesis,” by Philip Roth. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2010. 280 pp. $26.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
The odd thing about “Nemesis,” Philip Roth’s latest short novel, is the angst on the pages somehow does not translate to real emotion.
In parts, the book reads like a young adult novel, in others, a psychological analysis. Its “hero,” if that’s the correct term, is a tragic hero, duty-bound as an ancient Greek. Bucky Cantor’s hubris plays like a hackneyed tragedy.
Honor and duty lead him blindly down a path of self-blame, self-pity and self-loathing. After a while, readers won’t feel sorry for him —they’ll just be tired of his ridiculous standards and unnecessary martyrdom.
Roth piles up the strikes against Bucky. For starters, he is a young Jewish man living in a poor section of Newark, N.J., with his grandmother. His father is in jail; his mother died in childbirth. And in 1944, polio is a modern-day plague in the Jewish neighborhoods.
Then, although he has done everything in his life to please his grandparents, to become a responsible young man and an exemplary athlete, he is refused for service in World War II because of his horrible eyesight.
Then, the boys who come to the playground he supervises begin to come down with polio, and one mother says it’s his fault.
Then, the girl he loves invites him to work at the summer camp in the Poconos where she is a counselor.
Oh, does he wrestle with his conscience — can he possibly leave the sweltering, stinking, pestilence-stricken streets of Newark? Can he leave his elderly grandmother? He has duties, responsibilities. He has guilt. He owes his presence to the few boys left. He owes his life to his grandmother.
On the other hand, he owes his girlfriend.
No, no, he’ll stay and face the music, take criticism, risk infection. It’s the right thing to do.
But … he’s calling girlfriend, Marcia, to say he’s on his way.
Once at Indian Hill, he enjoys the clean, cool air, the happy, healthy children, the water activities, the carnal pleasures of his girlfriend.
Oh, he’s stricken again with pangs of doubt about staying to face the worst.
Then, he finds a happy place for a few days.
So far, the entire novel has been foreshadowing disaster for this thoroughly decent young man.
Roth further seals his fate by making him angry at God and blaming him for polio, World War II, unhappiness.
He and Marcia fight.
And then, his best buddy at the camp comes down with fever, weakness, pain. It’s polio.
And Bucky suddenly knows he is the carrier who has sickened all the boys in Newark and he’s not going to kill all the children at the camp.
You know the next strike, don’t you?
The novel’s omniscient third-person narrator finally reveals his identity — one of the playground boys, one who survived polio and is working, married and with children.
Bucky is a bitter man with few prospects and no hope.
Roth has the narrator analyzing Bucky at weekly lunches they have together.
“By and large he had the aura of ineradicable failure about him as he spoke of all that he’d been silent about for years, not just crippled physically by polio, but no less demoralized by persistent shame.”
Bucky does not accept anything the now-grown Arnold tells him, further railing against God and himself for what has happened.
“But there’s nobody less salvageable than a ruined good boy,” Arnold says. “The guilt in someone like Bucky may seem absurd but, in fact, is unavoidable. Such a person is condemned. Nothing he does matches the ideal in him. He never knows where his responsibility ends.”
In Roth’s world, good guys do finish last.