Monday, August 5, 2013

NemesisNemesis by Philip Roth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was the best of years, it was the worst of years. The summer of 1944 Newark, New Jersey, that is. That's kind of how I felt about this novel, sort of ambivalent. There is an ennervating nostalgic 'sheen' that coats the polite (almost antiseptic) prose of the narrative - I guess symptomatic of writing in the mode of a reminiscence - in spite of the creeping horror called polio that is terrorizing the children of the community. The character of Bucky is so unfalteringly the schoolyard hero, so without edge as to verge on bland. This despite being raised by his grandparents because his mother died in childbrth and his estranged father is an ex-con. He is apparently utterly without bitterness or anger because his grandfather taught him how to be tough. Bucky does all the right things, defends and cares deeply for the fitness and well-being of his kids as their playground director, and offers his condolences to the families of the ones who suddenly succumb to the childhood scourge. The first real sign of conflict comes when about half way through the novel Bucky, or Mr. Cantor as he is referred to for most of the novel, makes the fateful and 'unheroic' decision to abandon his anxiety-ridden kids and fearful community (not to mention his aging grandma) to escape the ravaged city for Camp Indian Hill in the idyllic Poconos to join his fiancee the unblemished Marcia Steinberg, where they canoe out to an island for lovemaking trysts surrounded by white birches. The decision to leave Newark happens in a flash, engendering some inner conflict but not very much, when it becomes clear to Bucky that life as a member of the upstanding and intact Steinberg family (the very model of an Ozzie and Harriet assemblage) offers escape from his own disjointed roots (of course, he doesn't think of it that way). He does hesitate once in camp for abandoning grandma and the kids - everything just seems way too perfect in the mountains - but I expected much more gutwrenching guilt. The reader knows this can't end well, and thus two things happen at this point in the story; it becomes apparent that this is all a set-up (which is the way it feels from page 1) and, the disastrous ending has been precisely telegraphed. It's all very tidy and we rush to see how Bucky is going to deal with the inevitable. Only in the last few pages, in the present, does the writing start to sing with the depth of Bucky's inner turmoil. But when he starts arguing about theological matters it feels forced, sounding more like Roth than his protagonist. Bucky simply doesn't seem like the type to go there. Still, his anger with himself at the end comes as a refreshing show of genuine emotion.

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