With his latest novel, “Nemesis” (Houghton Mifflin), Philip Roth enters the realm of theology. Set in the summer of 1944, in the mostly Jewish Weequahic section of Newark, it is ostensibly the story of Bucky Cantor, a vital, young, virtue-driven athlete and gym teacher deemed unfit for World War II combat because of his faulty eyesight. His field of battle, instead, becomes the neighborhood playground where, in his job as the playground director, he watches on, helplessly as a brutal polio epidemic kills and maims one after another of the youngsters under his supposed protection.
It is not only the suddenness and severity of these cases that test Bucky’s faith. The random nature of who is struck down, and who is spared, challenges his understanding of the justness of the universe. The broken record inside his head stubbornly demands answers to questions that are unanswerable: Why do the innocent suffer? How can a benign God allow children to die?
Certainly, Bucky is not the first whose world view — and life course — is turned upside down by personal tragedy or public catastrophe. Over the millennia, believers and non-believers alike have wrestled with the meaning — or lack of meaning — of unwarranted misery (see the Book of Job, for starters). And as painful as accommodation to life’s disasters can be, it’s a sad truth that to be human is to be vulnerable. But the unaccepting Bucky rejects such a stance.
One reason, perhaps, is that he sees himself as something more than an ordinary mortal. Call it hubris, but Bucky’s self-image, as portrayed by Roth, is not that of a military reject but that of a Hercules-like hero in search of a mission that is worthy of his physical strength (he is a strong athlete who excels at the javelin throw) as well as of his self-defining sense of responsibility towards his charges, who in turn view him as their champion. Brought up by loving grandparents after the death of his mother in childbirth and the imprisonment of his gambler father for larceny, Bucky wears his moral fortitude as a badge of honor — and maybe, too, as a way of making amends for his father’s crimes, as well as for his own “crime” of inadvertently killing his mother by being born.
No wonder that Bucky regards the polio epidemic as an enemy to be kept at bay. Yet his javelin is a useless weapon when it comes to shielding a community against a microscopic virus. Moreover, with so little then known about the polio virus (the preventive vaccine was not developed until the 1950s), it also quickly becomes clear that there is another adversary with which to contend: hysteria. Fear and paranoia prove just as, if not more, contagious than polio itself as parents begin to irrationally blame Bucky for the spread of infection. And the once self-confident Bucky, now guilt-ridden over his impotence in the face of disaster, is more than willing to scapegoat himself.
Soon Bucky’s fiancée, who is spending the summer as a head counselor at a summer camp in the Poconos, convinces him to flee the polio cohort in Newark for what she believes is the safe haven of the bucolic countryside. And then, all too predictably, the plague finds its way there, too.
“Why?” That is the devastating refrain heard throughout this compact novel, and from that mournful howl emerges the bleak theology at the novel’s core. At the novel’s outset Bucky is presented as a non-observant Jew who nonetheless does not question his belief in God. But the words of what Bucky caustically calls “the God-glorifying Kaddish,” recited at the funeral of the first neighborhood child to die of polio, make him gag with indignation. “How could there be forgiveness — let alone hallelujahs — in the face of such lunatic cruelty?” he rages.
But for all of Bucky’s outrage at God, the idea of a random universe ruled by mere chance and contingency is not appealing, either. In Bucky’s view, someone has to be responsible for the damage done by the polio epidemic, and if not God, then who? Feeling betrayed by God, Bucky lapses into bitterness and self-pity.
Roth’s own rejection of God comes through in his decision to present Bucky’s story through the framework of the “pagan” Greek concept of Nemesis, of fate. Indeed, if the details of Bucky’s life history start to sound like a Greek myth, with Bucky’s role that of a demi-God attempting to outsmart the gods of polio, Roth’s choice of title confirms it. Nemesis was the mythological goddess of divine retribution from whom there is no escape. Even today, when we’re more apt to use the word as a synonym for a relentless enemy or remorseless rival, it still implies the idea of the inevitable, that however far and fast you run, your nemesis, your fate, will nonetheless outpace you.
Roth further underscores the ancient Greek notion of the inexorable by grouping “Nemesis” with his three other recent novels — “Everyman,” “Indignation” and “The Humbling” — under the label, “Nemeses: Short Novels.” Read together, they form a theme and variations on the futility of trying to extricate oneself from our ultimate destiny: death and decay. “Everyman” surveys the life and death of a man haunted by the notion that he will die — as he does — in lonely oblivion. In “Indignation,” a college student who has come of age during the Korean War works every angle to avoid the draft, inadvertently setting off a chain of events that will lead to his becoming fodder for the battlefield. In “The Humbling,” an aging actor attempts to regain his fluency as a performer, and in so doing sets the stage for his own demise. The very titles of these novels resonate with the bell toll of mortality. Death is everyman’s (and every woman’s) nemesis, these books proclaim — our indignation, our humbling, our dust. The real myth, Roth suggests, is not Nemesis, but God.
To be sure, these are not cheery novels, and with the exception of “Indignation” (my favorite and in my view the strongest of the four), they do not crackle with Roth’s characteristic dark humor. They are, instead, different shades of dark. But what contrasts Roth nonetheless manages to paint within that palette! As the details of the polio outbreak unfold in “Nemesis,” for instance, Roth presents so stiflingly vivid an evocation of summer heat that the relentless sun beating down on the neighborhood’s parched trees and buckling pavement becomes a metaphor for the heartlessness of God and nature. It’s all the more cruel, therefore, when Bucky, amid the fresh grass and cool lakes of the Poconos, at first glories in this newly benign sun — until, that is, it shows itself as merciless as ever.
Throughout, Roth writes with the charred brilliance of a sun-scorched day in Hades. But despite the tight uncoiling of the novel’s first half, Roth’s elegant language and technical mastery cannot keep the novel’s second half from sagging. As a result, in the end, Bucky’s story is neither tragic nor cathartic but merely and unutterably sad. What remains most searing is Roth’s vision of an empty abyss from which no God, and no myth, can shield us.
Diane Cole is the author of the memoir, “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges” and a contributing editor of U.S. News & World Report.