Another year, another Philip Roth novel. This autumn brings us “Nemesis”, a story about a polio epidemic during a hot Newark summer in 1944. The hero is Bucky Cantor, age 23, a man of short stature whose poor vision has prevented him from joining his buddies in the army. Instead, Bucky takes a seasonal post as a playground director, and enjoys the gig until his charges start coming down with polio symptoms.
Reviews of “Nemesis” have been pallid so far, with Leon Neyfakh finding the novel “melodramatic and earnest to the point of not having a pulse” and Michiko Kakutani deeming it “a bit by the numbers”, though executed “with professionalism and lots of granular period detail.”
Kakutani is right about the granular detail, but no one has ever accused Roth of shying away from research. Some of the author’s best recent writing, in fact, centres around his fascination with trades: think of the kosher butcher in “Indignation” or the jeweller and cardiologist in “Everyman”, each profession accorded its own vocabulary and system of metaphors. A 23-year-old playground director, however, is another challenge altogether, and not even Roth can make poetry out of sprint drills.
Young Bucky Cantor organises ball games and strives to exemplify good character to his kids. Meanwhile, he crumples inwardly from the shame of wearing civilian clothes as his peers serve the country. When a 12-year-old child in Bucky’s group dies suddenly after displaying polio symptoms, Bucky must face the menace of a mysterious disease that no one yet can understand or contain. A second child dies, leaving locals to speculate that the disease is transmitted by bad milk, mosquito bites or over-exertion at softball. Another theory spreads that the ocean air is to blame.
Partly to escape the epidemic, Bucky joins his girlfriend at a summer camp in the Poconos. The girlfriend, like Bucky, is a thoroughly decent human being. Indeed, nearly everyone in “Nemesis” is decent, which is unfortunate, because decent characters tend to be interesting only in the company of non-decent ones. Lacking these, the book plods listlessly, stripped of any kind of humour or lust. It doesn’t help that the conflicts of “Nemesis” are abstract ones: Bucky’s spiritual crisis, his shame at being ineligible for the draft, his horror at the polio epidemic.
Still, Roth is Roth, and every once in a long while he drops one of those beautiful Rothian sentences that a reader will want to recite aloud: “A lot of the boys took salt tablets that their mothers had given them for the heat, and wanted to go on playing no matter how high the temperature soared, even when the field’s asphalt surface began to feel spongy and to radiate heat under their sneakers and the sun was so hot that you would think that rather than darkening your bare skin it would bleach you of all colour before cremating you on the spot.” The book’s best sentence happens to focus on Bucky’s nose:
“His nose was his most distinctive feature: curved like a scimitar at the top but bent flat at the tip, and with the bone of the bridge cut like a diamond—in short, a nose out of a folktale, the sort of sizable, convoluted, intricately turned nose that, for many centuries, confronted though they have been by every imaginable hardship, the Jews had never stopped making.”
But these sentences are painfully infrequent. Roth is off his game here, and in exactly the opposite way that he was off his game in 2008’s “Indignation”. That book was oddly conceived but forcefully written; this one has strong bones but no meat on them. In Bucky Cantor the author has created a profoundly uninteresting character in an interesting world. To be fair, the standard for Roth is high, and even sub-par Roth novels tend to be enjoyable—”Indignation”, for that matter, was a good read—but “Nemesis” falls far short of that standard. This one’s for completists only.