Nemesis by Philip Roth

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Nemesis by Philip Roth

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A polio outbreak in a hot city in the 1940s causes a young man to ponder the great causes in life. No summary conveys what is such a warm, intricate little look at a doubting 'hero'.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: October 2011
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099542261

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1944, Newark, New Jersey. Summer. Hot. Bucky Cantor, a young Jewish man, is gym teacher and playground attendant-cum-sports instructor for the district, helping all those interested become fit young men, able to do what his eyesight prevents him from doing - serving in the forces. Things would be fine if his girlfriend were closer at hand, if it were cooler, and if there were no polio epidemic happening. But there is, and nobody knows what is causing it. Is it flies? Is it a gang of taunting Italian kids spreading it from neighbourhood to neighbourhood? Is it blacks, germs on money - is it in fact Cantor himself, draining all the youthful vigour from his charges under a blistering sun?

When, earlier in 2011, Roth won the International Booker, people were quick to jump on a contrary bandwagon, saying he only ever wrote variations of one book regarding the woes of North American Jews. Well, this, being my second instance of his writing beyond cinema adaptations of his works, is certainly very welcome whatever its provenance. It strikes me as quite unnecessarily good to have as the main topic of a short novel about doubt, guilt and chance, something science has since learned so much about. Yes, there are other things for Bucky to question - his rashly-made midway decisions to name but two. But this feels uncommonly universal, quite modern and very relevant, even though (unlike the characters) we can wikipedia polio in seconds.

Part two is markedly different, where we see Cantor's doubt in much more of an idyllic surround. His self-criticism and awareness in what is clearly a pre-lapsarian situation put the real, honest and honestly created fictional character in a blunt, basic near-cliche. But that's no bad thing at all. Conscience, disease, religion - if Graham Greene were the type to put a 'hero' in the Garden of Eden, if only for a while, he could have written this. There's a similar, mutedly concise vocabulary, and a readability that only comes from a very talented storyteller.

If this is an inconsequential repetition in Roth's oeuvre, I'm only glad I read it. Snappy, brief, but with a solid flavour to itself, it's the kind of brisk, breezy adjunct to a career I would prefer to read over a fat state-of-the-nation novel any day. I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

My first dose of Roth was Indignation.

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