Philip Roth's "Nemesis," reviewed by Roxana Robinson
By Philip Roth (above)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
280 pp. $26
For decades, Philip Roth has written the long narrative of the Jewish American experience, shining on it the light of his considerable intelligence. His latest book, "Nemesis," addresses a biological threat to his community in the 1940s.
It's difficult, now, to imagine the terror that polio once roused, but by the early 1950s there were 58,000 new cases in America and no cure. Some victims recovered, some suffered permanent disabilities, and some were paralyzed in the lungs and succumbed to the disease. Antibiotics eliminated other childhood illnesses, but polio raged on. This is the historical context for "Nemesis," which recounts an outbreak of polio in 1944 in Roth's home town of Newark. Here the disease carries cultural as well as medical import.
"The first case of polio that summer came early in June . . . in a poor Italian neighborhood crosstown from where we lived. Over in the . . . Jewish Weequahic section, we heard nothing about it." The Jewish section hears soon enough. Bucky Cantor, a young phys ed instructor, is the director of a summer sports program in Weequahic, and in the arresting opening scene, Italian toughs arrive at his playground. Swaggering and hostile, the Italians announce their intent: "We're spreadin' polio. . . . We got it and you don't, so we thought we'd drive up and spread a little around." While the Jewish kids watch, the Italian spits on the sidewalk, sending "a gob of viscous sputum [that] splattered . . . only inches from the tip of Mr. Cantor's sneakers." This attack is not suffered meekly: Brave Bucky Cantor faces down the Italians, calls the police and swabs down the sidewalk with disinfectant. He does everything right -- perfectly, in fact -- but the march of disease, like that of discrimination, is irrational. One person's best efforts won't stem the tide.
Polio invades the quiet neighborhood of Weequahic. " 'Our Jewish children are our riches,' someone said. 'Why is it attacking our beautiful Jewish children?' " At first, Cantor is a source of strength for the community, but as fear infects him, he loses moral conviction, quits his job and abandons the kids. He heads for a job at a summer camp in the uncontaminated Catskills, where his girlfriend works. As the epidemic rages through the Jewish neighborhood, anti-Semitic murmurings are reported. All this takes place against the grim backdrop of wartime Europe.
The idea of disease as weapon is sinister and electrifying, particularly when used against an ethnic group. This sort of warfare could provide a mirror to reflect our hidden cultural fault lines, and it's a rich philosophical premise for a novel. Roth, however, chooses not to explore it. The culture wars are left behind when Cantor arrives in the Jewish camp. In fact, once the shift is made to the Catskills, the tension diminishes and the pace slows. The place itself is given only a perfunctory description. Roth is lovingly attentive to Newark, but evokes the rural landscape in cliches: "This was the wide-open spaces. Here the vista was limitless." Much of the dialogue is wooden and long-winded, delivering information through ponderous monologues.
Bucky's girlfriend, Marcia, is a two-dimensional character whose main appeal lies in "the allure of her petite figure" and her sexual urgency. "Undress me, please. Undress me now," she begs Cantor. Apart from lackluster sex scenes, from here on the narrative is set in a more limited and less compelling arena of men's athletics, men's friendships and men's interlocking networks of responsibility. The final scene, back in Newark, offers an elegiac reprise of Bucky's earlier heroic presence, but this doesn't make up for the long, flat sections set in camp.
The book's most serious flaw, however, is not its flagging energy but an odd lacuna that occurs in many of Roth's books. His work is rich with philosophical inquiry, deep with intellectual exploration, but lacking in emotional range. He seems unable to write convincingly of the drama at the center of our lives: a deep, vital and passionate commitment to another person. Roth doesn't create a loving bond that's both intellectual and erotic, one that entails trust and respect as well as carnal intent. He writes tenderly about the family, but only from the viewpoint of a son or grandson; he writes with little depth or understanding about wives, girlfriends or mistresses. Absent from his work is that lifelong dialogue between lovers, the chronicle of their fierce struggle to engage on every level.
Roth's women characters are presented primarily as sexual partners. He seems unable to create a woman whom he loves (except as a mother) or for whom he feels a sympathy we could share. His male protagonists are often misogynistic, and their intentions toward women simplistic. Such a limited view might appear lively and interesting in a cocky young writer with his life ahead of him, but over time it becomes tedious. An author's work should reveal the shifts in understanding and the rise in wisdom that age might confer, but Roth's shows no such learning curve.
To be a great writer, you needn't be a good person, but you must know how it feels to be one: You must be able to write Desdemona. To be a great writer, you needn't be in love, but you must know what it means: You must know how Achilles feels about Patroclus. Roth seems unable to create -- or even to understand -- the powerful emotional engine that drives the greatest fiction that we know.
Robinson is most recently the author of "Cost," which was named one of the five best novels of 2008 by The Post.