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Philip Roth
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2010

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
USA Trade Hardcover, First Edition
ISBN 978-0-547-31835-6
Publication Date: 10-05-2010
304 pages, $26
Date Reviewed: 10-21-2010

Index:   General Fiction

The English language is a trap. It's too easy, almost natural to speak of what could have been or what might have happened. In that split between the real and the imagined, our conscience is born. If our imagination suggests we made the wrong decision, our conscience — the adding machine of guilt and remorse — torments us with visions of unrealized potential.

Philip Roth's new novel, 'Nemesis,' is a carefully crafted prose examination of how a single crack in a young man's conscience becomes his undoing. Roth sets the novel in a simpler time. It begins in Newark, in 1944, during the rise of a vicious polio epidemic. This faceless killer is clearly evil, a difficult foe, and the protagonist, Bucky Cantor already feels guilty. He's an able-bodied, well-meaning 24 year-old young man who cannot join his friends at the front due to his bad eyesight. Now, as a playground supervisor in a scorching heat wave, he watches helplessly as his charges are swiftly killed or crippled.

From the first sentence of 'Nemesis' we know that something is slightly askew. Roth's prose is sinewy and vigorous as we are plunged into an epidemic that seems remote and forgotten here in the 21st century. 'Nemesis' brings it into startling, affecting focus, but who is doing the seeing and telling, is left unclear — at least at first. It hardly matters, because the voice is so sure and such a full, beautifully wrought piece of its time. Polio epidemics are no longer an issue in this world. But in 1944, they were a terrifying killer of innocent children. One day a child would have a headache, the next, they might be dead, or crippled. Roth immerses readers in the world — and conscience — of Bucky Cantor, and from beginning to end, it is a compelling reading experience.

Bucky Cantor is a shining example of American fortitude and manliness. He's a Jewish orphan raised by tough but loving grandparents. Roth pulls this off without irony or being overly sentimental by virtue of the simple, unadorned prose voice. As playground supervisor, Bucky's determined to give his best to the kids in his charge. And he does this, becoming more and more concerned about his inability to help those who fall ill to polio. He's got a great girl, Marcia, who is working at a polio-free camp in the Poconos. He's smart, but not intellectual. As the novel begins, he's rock steady, but as the deaths climb, his conscience begins to fracture.

Roth pulls all this off with some of the purest, most muscular prose you'll find in a novel this year. Because we're so immersed in Bucky's life, and in Roth's powerful characterization, we go along with the mystery of just who is telling the story. Roth uses the simplicity of the time and the clarity of vision to keep us involved in the action on the ground, as Bucky comes to a point where he must imagine two possible paths and choose one.

Once Bucky decides, Roth manages to ratchet up the tension and terror. Bucky is at war with his own soul, and with his own imagination of God. Roth re-creates with astonishingly perfect prose idyllic descriptions of a camp in the Poconos and young love. The prose voice lets Roth channel all the innocent joy and power of those simpler times. But Bucky's fracturing mind is certain to undermine that idyll. He knows that polio is a disease, but to him it's evidence that God is either absent or evil. In the absence of God, Bucky feels compelled to take responsibility. The subjunctive tense, the "should have beens" that rattle around in his conscience, offer no possibility of redemption. The grammar of guilt comes with an irrefutable logic.

Roth's resolution of Bucky's dilemma is a compulsive and utterly involving reading experience. He answers our questions — and there are plenty of mysteries to be solved in his swift setup — in a vision of the emotional aftermath of polio. With a close focus on a time of innocence interrupted by a formless killing evil, Roth uses the form of the short novel to examine how language itself, our own inner monologues, are but symptoms of a disease for which there is no cure — our conscience.

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