Sunday, January 30, 2011

Book Review - Nemesis by Philip Roth (Jonathan Cape 2010)

It is 1944. Bucky Cantor is a 23 year old Playground Director in Weequahic, the Jewish quarter of Newark, New Jersey. A polio epidemic is spreading through the city. Cantor is dedicated to his job and to his charges, who in turn idolise him. Poor eyesight has prevented him from enlisting with his friends, much to his distress, as he is brave, athletic and dutiful. When Italian roughnecks come to the Playground "spreadin' polio" Cantor faces up to them and forces them to leave.

But polio does come to Weequahic and fatally strikes some of the children of the Playground. Panic spreads around the community. Cantor dutifully visits the anguished families of the bereaved. When he is asked by the family of Alan Michaels to come to his funeral he does so, despite that not being his original intention. This impulsiveness and willingness to oblige is the fatal flaw in an otherwise exemplary young man. Later, as the epidemic strengthens, his girlfriend pressurises him to foresake his job with the Playground as she has obtained a vacancy for his at an idyllic Summer Camp in the mountains far away from the polio epidemic. Should Bucky Cantor turn his back on the children of the playground in the face of the epidemic and take an easy option to be with his girlfriend?

This is not a long book, no more than a novella, with a single theme from which it never deviates. Yet it is remorseless, challenging, terrible. Like no other book I have read for a very long time it sets out the nature of fate, of responsibility, of contingency. To what extent is Bucky Cantor's future, and the future of those around him, determined by his actions, by his understanding of the nature of duty and by his weakness. And what is the role of God smiting the good and the worthless indiscriminately with this terrible disease. Is he in actual fact an "evil genius?"

Philip Roth's prose is simple and direct, using the heatwave to develop a sense of claustrophobia in the city in which the polio can fester, and contrasting that with the freshness of the mountain camp. There is very little that is superfluous, so the few descriptive passages make a big impact. The story is so simple, so basic, that the denouement strikes you with the force of a train. Looking back, you realise that you have been manipulated by a master at the top of his game. Economy, directness, impact. This short book will stay with you for a long long time.

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