Polio sends Newark, Roth hero into tailspin

"Nemesis," by Philip Roth. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26.

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The classic meaning of nemesis -- "the agent of divine punishment for wrongdoing or presumption" -- is the theme of Philip Roth's latest return trip to his Newark, N.J., birthplace.

Ever since he took up arms against cancer (prostate) and age (77), he's been frequently reacquainting himself with the city of his youth. This time it's 1944, the world is at war and Newark's young men are off to battle, except Bucky Cantor.

Although he's a star athlete in the Swede Levov manner of "American Pastoral," another Newark novel, Bucky's dim vision has made him 4-F and of course, racked with guilt.

He's a high school gym teacher with a good summer job as a city recreation director in a Jewish neighborhood where the boys look up to Mr. Cantor, his decency, sense of fairness and skills at javelin throwing and diving.

Adding to the man's nobility is that he's an orphan raised by grandparents and now supporting his widowed grandmother.

Bucky's the atypical Roth hero -- no fatal flaws, nasty temperament or sex addition -- in short, boring. He does have a girlfriend, fellow teacher Marcia, daughter of a successful physician who appreciates his sterling character.

Then the nemesis arrives in the virulent form of polio which ravaged the youth of Newark in that hot summer of '44, decimating Bucky's brigade of boys.

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.

Equally grueling to read is Bucky's struggle with his own guilt, not only as a washout in the military, but also because of his decision to leave foul-smelling, disease-ridden Newark for a job at a kids camp in the clear air of the Poconos where Marcia is a counselor.

But nowhere is safe from the epidemic. In 1944, polio was still a largely misunderstood disease, and in the mind of a man so dominated by guilt, it took on supernatural powers. When campers are stricken, Bucky blames himself for the outbreak because he's being punished for abandoning his adoring charges in Newark.

The corrosive effects of guilt build inevitably from this point in a grim, predictable march to Bucky's downfall. Mr. Roth has created such a thick-headed character with a one-note view of life, so in its grip that he refuses all offers of help, including love.

This tragic hero, so unlike the expansive, hungry creations of his other novels, is too determined to dig his own grave. Thanks to the unrelenting portrait by the author, we're tempted to help him.

"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: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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