Friday, November 05, 2010

Nemesis by Philip Roth

Back in the 60s, Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth’s first novel, had everybody buzzing. I read it, but did not like it at all. The “rule of 50” lay years in my future, so I struggled to the end. This turned me off Roth until I read Everyman several years ago. Then, I read a few of his recent novels, and tried Goodbye again. This time, the rule of 50 played an important role – I still did not like that novel.

Without any trepidation, however, I dove into Nemesis published a short time ago. Am I glad I did! Now, Roth is my front runner for the Nobel Prize for Literature, because of the way he chronicles life in America in the last half of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries.

This novel is unlike anything I have read by Roth. Nothing put pure, young, innocent love set during a tragic episode in American history.

Bucky Cantor’s mother died in childbirth, and his father ended up in prison. Raised by his grandparents, they taught him self-reliance, the value of hard work, and he became quite an athlete. When Pearl Harbor suffered an attack, he tried to enlist with his friends, but poor eyesight earned him a classification of 4-F. These misfortunes haunted him for most of his life. Upon graduation from the ironically named “Panzer College,” he landed a job at a local elementary school as a physical education teacher. There he met Marcia, a new first grade teacher. The two instantly fell in love, but Cantor’s depression over his misfortunes shadowed him throughout his life. When a polio epidemic hits Newark in the summer of 1944, Bucky searches for an explanation in a world controlled by God. He spends much of the rest of his life wondering why God lets bad things happen to innocent children.

Roth has penned an absorbing and tightly drawn story of not only a man, but of a community and a tragedy of terrible proportions. In A Distant Mirror, the late historian, Barbara Tuchman, draws parallels between the 14th and 20th centuries. The bubonic plague which swept through Europe six centuries ago killed tens of millions of people. Superstition, and lack of basic understanding of infections and how they spread through a population, fueled panic, anti-Semitism, and incidents of violence against communities viewed as likely scapegoats. Roth demonstrates Tuchman’s thesis had more parallels than she mentioned, since her book mainly focused on the flu epidemic of 1918, in which tens of millions died world-wide. This pattern was repeated with the polio epidemic of the 40s and again with the A.I.D.S. epidemic which began in the 80s. Fortunately, modern science took the reins with explanations and treatments for both 20th century plagues. History does repeat itself.

Nemesis is the fourth in a series of short novels grouped under the heading Nemeses. If you haven’t read Roth in a while, start with this slim volume and work your way back to something near the beginning. Then try Goodbye, Columbus again. I believe the careful reader will discover a clear distinction between the early Roth and the master novelist of today. (5 Stars)

--Chiron, 11/5/10

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