by Philip Roth
280 pages, Jonathan Cape
Review by Pat Black
Bucky Cantor is a Jewish phys ed teacher in the sweltering summer of 1944 in Newark, New Jersey. He isn’t in Europe fighting the Germans like his friends because he has very poor eyesight, and his feelings of guilt and shame over this are monumental. He was born to fight – made to fight - he feels. So, the 23-year-old makes up for his 4-F status by being physically strong and morally upright, a fine role model for the children he helps look after.
But there’s something loose in the city during the summer heat that he cannot fight against, an implacable force that begins to take the children one by one: polio.
From our very first introduction to Bucky we can see that he’s tough; the weightlifter, diver and javelin thrower faces down some Italian guys who try to cause trouble at the camp and deals with them in a very mature manner. For a horrid moment I thought there was going to be a fistfight, a comic book brawl that would leave the Italians on the ground. But no such thing happens in Philip Roth’s fine piece of work.
As the polio claims more lives and leaves other children disfigured, Cantor is offered a way out – a spot in another camp, miles away from the city in the clean Pennsylvanian mountain air, alongside his sweetheart. Thus begins an almighty tag team tussle between conscience, responsibility and the need to follow our hearts’ desires.
Guilt is a big theme of this book; Bucky is riven with it from first to last, even though he cannot be blamed for anything that goes wrong. This fuels an ongoing argument with God, stemming from anger over unpleasant things that happen to innocent people. As such things continue to happen, this anger will threaten everything he has in the world.
Is Nemesis a Holocaust novel? I suppose it must be – we know what was happening in Europe during this time and that knowledge looms large, an invisible threat much like the polio, and just as deadly.
There’s also a bizarre section that strikes a jarring note in us, a mock Indian festival where the Jewish children in the Pocono mountain camp take part in a native American ceremony. It’s intended as homage to the outdoors, to unity with your fellow camper, and the camp leaders dress in full costume. Certainly, the children seem to love it. But we’re told that the original “how” greeting, with the right hand raised palm outwards, was banned because it looked a bit too much like what the Nazis did. From there we can make all sorts of conjectures and comparisons.
Roth says during a mock bear-hunting act: “The campers’ cheering continued, the delight enormous at finding themselves encompassed by murder and death.” In the fireside declarations of patriotism and unity we might also discern traces of the Hitler Youth movement. And of course, it’s all a bit rich and sanitised; the native Americans weren’t always dealt with fairly and humanely by the white man. You wonder what the spirits the campers are trying to evoke really think of them.
But then, in the fireside homily of the “Big Chief”, Roth also seems to be hinting at an all-inclusive sense of humanity, as being one big race with an atavistic shared culture; fire, hunting, feasting together. It’s not clear-cut. And it all depends how much you want to read into it, of course.
Mostly this is a book about men – fine, upstanding role models. They don’t cheat, they don’t drink too much, they’re even-tempered and well-mannered and they know instinctively the right thing to do. Bucky is instantly likeable and, although we are told early on that his absentee father was a rogue and a thief, he’s had excellent role models in life. First and foremost there’s the pugnacious grandfather who raised him. As a counterpoint, his fiancée Marcia’s father, a doctor, is a great calming influence. He also recognises his daughter has a fine young man in Bucky, and is thrilled that the lad will join his family. In a time of life when I’m getting jaded with all the anti-heroes it was heartening to read about these brave, decent fellows. I saw nobility in Bucky’s callow stoicism, his inspirational encouragement of the children.
This sense of righteousness stays with us even as Nemesis’s pathetic conclusion plays out, and we meet our hitherto unseen narrator (a slight nod towards Camus’s The Plague). Roth’s message is that you shouldn’t beat yourself up about things that you can’t change; unpleasantness is inevitable in life. But if you’ve done your best, then be satisfied. There’s no point punishing yourself over something that wasn’t your fault. What can it achieve but woe?
Sometimes the nemesis lurks within, and whether we like it or not, there is a fate in store for us all.