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Philip Roth's 'Nemesis' Comes With Complaints

Does Philip Roth have another big book like American Pastoral in him? His recent output, although prodigious even for someone half his age, comprises a series of slight novels, small-scale tragedies about loss and diminution that Roth groups together under the heading "Nemeses."  A nemesis, of course, is an unbeatable opponent, a source of harm, ruin or retribution. Roth's unfortunate characters in Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and now, Nemesis, are undone by what ultimately gets us all: mortality. But before death, there is the wearing away by aging, illness, bad luck, bad decisions, hubris and guilt.

Set in Roth's hometown, Newark, N.J., during the steamy summer of 1944, Nemesis concerns a polio epidemic that flares up in the city's Jewish Weequahic section. Bucky Cantor, an idealistic, much-admired 23-year-old gym teacher who has been rejected by the military because of his poor vision, takes the epidemic personally. When one young boy after another at the playground where he's summer director succumbs to the disease, it leads to "his outrage with God for the murderous persecution of Weequahic's innocent children."

Roth dwells on the oppressive heat of equatorial, wetland-ringed, pre-air-conditioned Newark and the insidious march of this vicious virus, which distracts people from war news overseas. Bucky, urged by his fiancee to abandon the torrid city for a job at the Indian-themed Poconos camp where she works, is tormented by his conscience. He feels he has deserted his playground troops for Marcia and a safe harbor that turns out to be elusive.

Nemesis evokes comparisons with Albert Camus' moral fable, The Plague, set in his home country, Algeria. But where the plague-struck coastal city of Oran serves as a symbol for France under German occupation and a portrait of resistance -- and, more generally, of the human condition -- the polio epidemic that strikes Newark in Roth's novel fails to take on metaphorical significance. Instead, polio remains Bucky's personal nemesis, lacking broader resonance largely because of the way he reacts to it, insisting on "convert[ing] tragedy into guilt."

Roth's choice of narrator -- and his decision to reveal his identity to the reader late in the book (much as Camus revealed Dr. Rieux as his narrator late in The Plague) -- leads to an odd secondhand quality to this often repetitive, oversimplified tale. There's a retro, stage-set feel to scenes played out on urban stoops and back porches. Secondary characters, who make up Bucky's cheering section -- his grandmother, Marcia and her family, his students -- are all two-dimensional. Dialogue is sprinkled with corny phrases like "Sure I can," which have the unconvincing ring of old movies. Even Bucky's struggles with God seem stock, and are all too easily dismissed by the narrator as stemming from a combination of martyrdom, misfortune and misplaced pride.

Is Nemesis Roth's nemesis? He's too productive and interesting a writer to say that. Plus, he's still capable of pulling off scenes like his gorgeous finale, a flashback to the seemingly invincible young man who dazzles his worshipful charges with his demonstration of a javelin throw and the "three D's. Determination, dedication, and discipline" -- qualities Roth has in spades.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.