[NOTE added 09/07/2013:] - Because of a coding error on Amazon's part, Amazon has merged the customer reviews of Jo Nesbo's detective novel, "Nemesis", with the customer reviews of Philip Roth's "Nemesis." This affects both books' product pages and it is confusing to potential readers of each book. Amazon is aware of the snafu but hasn't yet corrected the problem. The review below relates to Philip Roth's "Nemesis".]
One thing the prospective reader may want to know is that Philip Roth's "Nemesis" is an old-fashioned novel. The book has the glow of a twilit, though painful, reminiscence. It is set in the Jewish Weequahic section of Newark during the war year of 1944. Roth imagines the community suffering through a devastating polio epidemic that cruelly maims and kills its youngest members. The protagonist is Bucky Cantor, a young man, a stalwart common man, whose decision whether to remain at or abandon his post as summer playground director will have fateful consequences.
Very early in his career Roth sent to Saul Bellow a draft of a short story he was trying to get published, asking for comments and advice. Bellow replied: "My reaction to your story was on the positive side of the scale, strongly. But mixed, too. I liked the straightness of it, the plainness." A half century later, Roth's new novel respects Bellow's preference. Direct, straight and plain, "Nemesis" unfolds in a manner you may not immediately associate with Roth. It is as if, having chosen to set his tale in the mid-twentieth century, Roth decided to set aside the signature style and quirks he's perfected in the last few decades, and, instead, hark back to the American literature of that earlier period, embracing its feel and direction. For me, that embrace is one of the pleasures of this short novel.
The straightforward narrative of "Nemesis," which follows the traditional path of exposition, rising action, conflict, and aftermath, eschews the inventive and experimental course Roth took in some ambitious novels of the 1980's and 1990's, notably "The Counterlife" and "Operation Shylock." The surprisingly plain voice of the new novel, narrated not by some maniacally garrulous Nathan Zuckerman type, but by an even-tempered, practical-minded witness (who later reveals himself to have been one of the Newark child polio survivors) imparts a classic balance to the proceedings. Also un-Roth-like is the absence of ethnic satire (the Jewish community is lovingly portrayed). Readers expecting to encounter Roth's comical eye for the worst in people, a celebration of joyous rebellion, a sexual adventurousness, will be disappointed. Also, though fulminating anger abounds (Bucky repeatedly shakes his fist at a God "who spends too much time killing children"), that energy may not be enough to change the final verdict of some readers who will find the book lackluster and timid.
In its style (simple and earnest) and in its themes, "Nemesis" reminds me of the classic mid-20th century American fiction that has long been a staple of high school English classes -- especially the books, stories and plays featuring common men, ordinary Joes, who meet tragic ends. "Nemesis" shares with Steinbeck's "The Pearl," Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," and Thornton Wilder's "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," the theme of the vicissitudes of fate and the contingency of our existence. Roth shares with those authors and their social realist contemporaries -- the writers who commanded the stage when he was young -- an interest in the way the world at large shapes our private lives, and how accidental forces shape individual destiny. If you still have a fondness for those books -- maybe because they were the vehicles through which you first learned to read intensely and interpret critically -- then you are bound to like "Nemesis."
"Nemesis" is unafraid to tackle the moral dimensions of our actions and lives. By book's end we have come to realize all of us are carriers of disease -- "bringers of crippling and death" -- if not in a literal sense then in the form of anger, suspicion, self-pity, greed and selfishness. Roth raises anew the old questions: What is our responsibility to our fellows? Are we all to blame? One is reminded of Arthur Miller, especially the stark examination of these issues in his play, "Incident at Vichy," set in World War II. Are we left with the impossible choice between either resigning ourselves to the suffering of others or taking on a responsibility whose dimensions doom us to failure?
Time will tell, but "Nemesis" could emerge as the one classic Roth novel all should read.