For those who monitor the growing list of books by Philip Roth, his forthcoming, Nemesis, presents a revelation as startling as the discovery of a planet or the alignment of a new constellation.
The top of the list remains reassuringly familiar: “Zuckerman Books” (those featuring Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s alter ego), “Roth Books” (another alter ego, “Philip Roth,” in a category that includes fiction and nonfiction alike) and “Kepesh Books” (another serial protagonist who may or may not be an alter ego).
But then there is an emergent category: “Nemeses: Short Fiction,” which encompasses four recent novels, including the new one. What this means to the ardent Roth reader is that three works previously considered unrelated—Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008) and The Humbling (2009), formerly scattered at the list’s bottom with some of his earliest efforts as “Other Books,” are now connected. And Nemesis provides the key to that connection.
A little longer than the other three, Nemesis could be the darkest novel Roth has written and ranks with the most provocative. It’s a parable of innocence lost in the author’s native Newark, where polio threatens a neighborhood that is already sacrificing young men to World War II. The protagonist is Bucky Cantor, a 23-year-old playground director, who has seen his best friends enlist in the war while he was rejected for poor eyesight.
Instead, “Mr. Cantor” (as his charges call him) finds himself facing a more insidious enemy. “No medicine existed to treat the disease and no vaccine to produce immunity…(it) could befall anyone, for no apparent reason,” writes Roth. It arrives without warning, and it changes everything. If anything, it was scarier than cancer or AIDS is now.
Narrating the story is one of polio’s victims, though he barely emerges as a character until the novel’s epiphany. Until then, Roth lets the reader wonder how a narrator named only in passing could penetrate the protagonist’s mind and relate a series of incidents that the narrator couldn’t have witnessed.
As Bucky’s boys succumb to the disease, temptation lures him from the city to what appears to be a safe oasis, an idyllic summer camp where his girlfriend works. Yet his conscience (already plagued by his 4-F status) pays the price for his escape, an escape that might prove illusory.
What is Bucky’s nemesis? Maybe polio. Maybe God, “who made the virus,” who kills children with “lunatic cruelty.” Maybe mortality—death and the decay that precedes it, the ravages of time that distinguish man from God.
But maybe Bucky’s nemeses include Bucky himself—a layer of meaning that makes this novel something other than another retelling of Job and forces the reader to reconsider the previously published “Nemeses” in fresh light. For it is within these short novels that Roth tackles nothing less than the human condition, which finds its nemesis in the mirror.