Bookmarks Issue: 
Philip Roth

A-NemesisPhilip Roth needs little introduction. The author of more than 30 books, from his debut, Goodbye, Columbus, in 1959, to classics such as Portnoy's Complaint, Sabbath's Theater, and the Zuckerman series, Roth has defined and redefined the American novel. Nemesis, the fourth book in a loosely linked series, examines death and duty against the backdrop of a 1940s polio epidemic. Reviewed books in the series: Everyman ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2006), Indignation ( 3 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2008), The Humbling ( 2.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2010).

The Story: America, 1944. Every able-bodied young man is away, fighting the Axis powers. When 23-year-old Eugene "Bucky" Cantor is declared 4-F because of his eyesight, he throws himself into his work as a gym teacher and summer playground director in Newark. Then a polio outbreak threatens the charges who idolize him (one of whom narrates Nemesis), and many panicked parents blame him for their children's illnesses. When a quarantine is discussed, Bucky, aching for a fresh start, leaves town for a Pocono Mountains summer camp, where he can be with his fiancée, Marcia Steinberg, and escape the prejudice of the city. But how far is far enough to escape the polio outbreak and Bucky's sense of guilt?
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 280 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780547318356

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Roth writes vividly of heat-choked streets and cramped houses in the days before air conditioning, where the residents sit out in the evenings to catch a breeze that rarely arrives. ... In a passage of remarkable beauty we see Bucky in pre-polio days demonstrating the javelin throw to his playground boys." Richard Eder

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"How Bucky fights this war, and loses, and the reparations he forces himself to pay, make for grimly compelling reading. As in all his recent books, Roth writes a lean, vigorous prose that burns with the intensity of his purpose." Jean Dubail

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Nemesis is perhaps the best of his short novels on death and aging. ... Roth, often described as America's greatest living novelist, writes at the top of his form in a straightforward, unadorned, almost muted prose, a kind of factual recounting of a horrible situation with its corrupted air of menace and disease." Sam Coale

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Bucky's trip to the woods also prepares us for the hard lesson at the core of Roth's late work, including each of the four recent novels Roth now is grouping as Nemesis novels: Because you can't run from the fate that awaits you, you better learn how to make peace with it. ... Like the protagonists in the other three Nemesis novels, Bucky showcases a possible version of who Roth himself might have become, had he not learned to balance an often heroic resistance to all limits with the humbling recognition that nobody--not even one of our greatest and most daring living writers--can outwit fate forever." Mike Fischer

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Whereas Portnoy's Complaint was an outrageously comic tale about the throwing off of duty, Nemesis is a pleasantly told parable about the embrace of conscience--and what its suffocating, life-denying consequences can be. ... It's not unmoving, exactly, but all a little synthetic--less like a vintage Roth narrative than like a very well-executed O. Henry story." Michiko Kakutani

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2.5 of 5 Stars
"As a writer of descriptive power, Roth is still in his prime as he recounts the epidemic's relentless march through a city already mourning the loss of its young men in World War II. ... Nemesis falls short of Mr. Roth's impressive catalog of fine novels despite its vivid passages of a city and its people under siege." Bob Hoover

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"The book's most serious flaw ... is not its flagging energy but an odd lacuna that occurs in many of Roth's books. ... Roth seems unable to create--or even to understand--the powerful emotional engine that drives the greatest fiction that we know." Roxana Robinson

Ft. Worth Star Telegram 1 of 5 Stars
"A writer who, in his greatest works, like Operation Shylock (1993) and The Human Stain (2000), mined his pessimism for both tragedy and comedy, is now teetering on the brink of pure fatalism. Even if Nemesis takes only two or three hours to read, life is too short for such a pointless beat-down." Christopher Kelly

Critical Summary

Philip Roth's consistent output over half a century is unprecedented. He has won every major award for writing in America, most of them more than once. And like many writers who reach a certain age and stature, Roth has become more nostalgic and introspective. Although not on a par with some of the books of his most fertile period in the three decades at the end of the last century, Nemesis is, in some ways, vintage Roth. Newark--warts and all--is every bit as vibrant as ever, and Bucky Cantor recalls some of Roth's most iconoclastic characters. At the same time, "unlike the usual Roth pattern, everyone in it is uncomplicatedly good; none more so than its tough, devoted protagonist" (Boston Globe). Is this Roth's best book? Not by a long shot. But that's okay.