Spoiler alert: as J. M. Coetzee points out in his fine piece, “On the Moral Brink” (New York Review of Books, 10/28/10), there is no way to discuss Philip Roth’s new novel sensibly without revealing both the climax and the conclusion. (Imagine an opening night review of “King Lear” that ended with, “But daughter Goneril’s rebuke of ‘your all-licensed fool’ is only the beginning of the old man’s troubles.”)
This, the latest of four related novellas (preceded by Everyman, Indignation and The Humbling) is a stripped-down fable that omits many of Roth’s best-known features—complex, convoluted characters, obsessive sexuality and even intense Jewish ethnicity—to deliver a meditation that might be labeled “The Atheist meets the Anti-theist.”
The protagonist, Eugene “Bucky” Cantor, is an ultra-decent, if bland and somewhat boring 23-year-old Frank Merriwell type, a phys. ed. teacher spending the summer of 1944 supervising a public playground-cum-ballfield in Newark. Given a 4-F deferment because of his wretched eyesight, Cantor frets because he cannot be with his buddies fighting the Nazis in Europe or the Japanese in the Pacific. But life-and-death terror comes to peaceful Newark in the form of a polio epidemic, which soon claims some of his charges—and a shocking number of Jewish children in the nearby Weequahic district of the city. Like everyone else who is supposedly “in charge,” Cantor is helpless. He plays by the rules, avoids overstraining the kids, practices meticulous hygiene and tries to keep up morale. But his lovely about-to-be fiancée and fellow teacher Marcia begs him to join her at her Indian-themed Jewish summer camp in the Poconos, where a job has opened up for a swimming and diving instructor (two of Bucky’s countless athletic skills). What to do?
Resistant at first, Bucky cites his need to stand by his boys and care for his widowed grandmother; but in a momentary impulse, half-panic and half-rebellion, he runs off to join Marcia in a sunny, breezy mountain Eden (while Newark broils in a non-stop infectious heat wave). Everything is beyond wonderful: true love, terrific campers, sensational natural beauty—and then all hell breaks loose. Bucky’s adoring fellow instructor Donald Kaplow contracts polio and dies. Groups of the campers fall ill (including one of Marcia’s sisters), and Indian Hill shuts down. Finally, Bucky himself turns out to be that rare specimen, a healthy infected carrier, and gets hauled off to the hospital, convinced that he was the plague-bearer who struck down the youngsters with whom he had contact. He survives and recuperates with only partial paralysis. But in an overwhelming fit of despair, he breaks with Marcia (who loves him anyway and furiously rejects his rejection) and goes on to live a lonely life working as a gas station attendant, clerk, postal employee, whatever. His splendid body now crippled, Cantor marinates in misery.
So what is the point of it all? The key moment comes in the final encounter between Cantor and the previously almost invisible narrator of the book, a younger man named Arnie Mesnikoff, who used to be one of Bucky’s playground kids. Mesnikoff caught polio too, but recovered sufficiently to marry and have both a family and a satisfying career as an architectural designer for handicapped people. He is an atheist, but an altogether happier character than Bucky, who has been passionately hating God because of all the children who suffered or perished in the epidemic (there is an obvious parallel between polio and the Holocaust) and hating himself for being God’s unwitting but cowardly tool.
In his culminating judgment, Arnie writes:
As for Bucky’s rebellion against Him, it struck me as absurd simply because there was no need for it. That polio epidemic among the children of the Weequahic section and the children of Camp Indian Hill was a tragedy he could not accept. He has to convert tragedy into guilt. He has to find a necessity for what happens. There is an epidemic and he needs a reason for it. He has to ask why. Why? Why? That it is pointless, contingent, preposterous, and tragic will not satisfy him. …Instead he looks desperately for a deeper cause…and finds the why either in God or in himself, or, mystically, mysteriously, in their dreadful joining together as the sole destroyer.
Like Marcia, Arnie thinks God has nothing to do with it; and while both their reactions are undoubtedly “healthier” than Bucky’s, the agony of rigid, humorless, unironic, not-all-that-bright “Mr. Cantor” (as Arnie always calls him) has a sort of dumb-heroic nobility about it. Devoid as it is of Jewish flavor (but then the Book of Job likewise has a wholly gentile cast of characters), Nemesis seems to boil down to a stark, cosmic encounter with forces that used to be called satanic; and as in Job, the fact that there are no rational answers does not mean you can do the sensible thing and give up looking for them. Bucky Cantor was once an extraordinary athlete—the story closes with a triumphant recollection of how fabulously he could throw a javelin—but in every other way he was a perfectly ordinary person, just your basic really nice kid turned tragic, self-destroying failure. Blessed are the unreconciled. Perhaps.