NEMESIS by Philip Roth

Book Quote:

” …there’s nobody less salvageable than a ruined good boy.”

Book Review:

Review by Helen Ditouras  (OCT 15, 2010)

“Tender” and “noble” are two words I have never used to describe a Roth character. In fact, Roth’s usual suspects are razor sharp with a mean streak of self-loathing to befit the most unlikable anti-heroes of the American literary canon. Not to mention, most of his characters are so self-obsessed and entrenched in complicated sexual proclivities that they seldom do the right thing. And much to the chagrin of my feminist friends, I’m amused, if not seduced, by these delinquent male protagonists, and look forward to their self-deprecating demise each and every time I encounter them.

Which is precisely why my love for Eugene “Bucky” Cantor bemuses me in a way I can’t describe. Cantor, the leading man in Roth’s latest novel Nemesis, is so decent, so likable in a non-Rothian way, that if you’re a stalwart fan of Alexander Portnoy or David Kepesh, two of the most deliciously depraved characters to ever grace Roth’s fiction, then Bucky Cantor materializes like Mother Theresa. And yet never before have I ached for such a character – identified with such a man whose nobility and innocence would have previously escaped me.

Is it the setting of this novel, 1944 wartime Newark, that makes the emergence of a character like Cantor so salient, if not, believable? Or, is it the raging outbreak of polio in Jewish Weequahic that brings all of these elements together? A child orphaned by the death of his mother upon giving birth, abandoned by his charlatan of a father, Bucky Cantor is saved by his wholesome grandparents who raise him with dignity and unmitigated devotion. Schooled by his grandfather – a kind, but indubitably, man’s man, Cantor appears in the first chapter of Roth’s novel as a hero of sorts. Especially to the children of Chancellor Avenue School, who worship Bucky as their beloved playground director during the summer of the polio outbreak. Unhinged by his inability to serve in the army due to his compromised eyesight, Cantor allots his time and affection to the Jewish children of Weequahic who compete for his love and approval. From standing up to a group of anti-Semitic Italian hooligans on the playground, to modeling his outstanding athletic prowess, Bucky Cantor is more than the local victor of summertime Newark – he becomes the center of these children’s lives. So when polio hits the Chancellor playground and ruthlessly stakes out the fates of these children, so begins the slow and agonizing decline of Roth’s most affable frontrunner.

What strikes me as sheer genius on the part of Roth, is the allegorical references to Europe’s Shoah that line the pages of this heartfelt narrative. Even while Roth makes references to Nazi-occupied Europe and the ongoing war, he is quick to evade any talk of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Instead, he redirects the readers to Pearl Harbor, or the calamity of polio, which like the Holocaust, swiftly and mercilessly wipes out the Jews of Newark. That Cantor is overwhelmingly haunted, page after page, with crippling doses of survivor’s guilt, only makes this metaphorical imagery more deliberate and nuanced. Like many survivors, Cantor rails against the wrath of God, who does little to stop the slaughter of Newark’s children. And his disbelief of God, which appears early on in the novel, intensifies as the narrative progresses, leaving Bucky more desolate, more pathetic, than possibly imaginable.

So, who was Bucky Cantor’s nemesis? Was it the rampant Anti-Semitism of the 1940s – so disproportionate in its ugliness – that forced Cantor to always “stand up for himself as a man and to stand up for himself as a Jew?” Or was Cantor’s unconditional allegiance to patriarchy the Achilles’ heel that forced him to view his own weakness as feminized and unacceptable. I would suggest, his penultimate nemesis was the polio outbreak of the 40s.

Making his indomitable nemesis, of course, God.

In all of this uncertainty lies the unadulterated beauty of Roth’s new novel – the resounding message that despite life’s malevolent blows, goodness does abound. And in the face of mankind’s cynicism, once in a great while, we are blessed to make the acquaintance of people like Bucky Cantor.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 61 readers
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (October 5, 2010)
REVIEWER: Helen Ditouras
AUTHOR WEBSITE: The Philip Roth SocietyWikipedia page on Philip Roth
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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October 16, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Literary, Man Booker International Prize, NE & New York, y Award Winning Author

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