Nemesis by Philip Roth (ARC)

My father was born in 1945 and spent his childhood in Newark, (pronounced ‘nork,’ regardless of what you’ve been told) New Jersey.  His family lived in the Ironbound – a.k.a. “Down Neck”.  Wikipedia describes it as a large, working class neighborhood; but my understanding is that there wasn’t a lot of work and even less money when he was growing up.  Black & white photos of my father as a child look like stills from a Bowery Boys film:  a bunch of scruffy kids in hand-me-downs hanging out in a back alley.  And like the films, his stories are about getting into trouble.  Like the time his brothers blew up the basement using a chemistry set that the salesman assured my grandmother was completely harmless; or when his one friend chased the truant officer with a bow & arrow that he’d learned to shoot at the Boy’s Club; or how my dad stole his sister’s car and stalled his way down Ferry Street, his best friend sitting in the passenger seat laughing the entire time (he was 12).  Mayberry it definitely was not.  But I loved hearing those stories.  I still do.  So it’s not surprising that the landscape of Philip Roth’s new novel is completely familiar.  Or that I was invested in it even before I started reading.

Nemesis, Philip Roth’s 31st book (and my 1st Philip Roth novel) is set during the Summer of 1944.  A polio epidemic is terrorizing Newark.   The principal character is Bucky Cantor, a young playground director kept out of military service by bad eyes and a 4-F classification.  Raised by his grandparents, Cantor is everything a hero should be – honorable, athletic, “a great fellow” with a clearcut sense of right and wrong.  The book opens with him standing down ten Italian punks from Ironbound (the first neighborhood hit by the disease) who’ve come to “spread some polio” in Jewish Weequahic.  Bucky, taught by his grandfather that a man is defined by his responsibilities, becomes a neighborhood hero for protecting the playground and the children under his care.  He’s universally admired and respected.

But as the novel progresses  Bucky is forced to watch, helpless, as boys under his charge succumb to the virus.  And we are led to question whether the very qualities we admire in Bucky will ultimately be his undoing.  Because the disease ravaging the playground boys is illogical, unpredictable, indefensible.   Polio becomes Bucky Cantor’s personal nemesis; an enemy he can’t fight and is ill-equipped to  understand.

Roth has crafted a complicated character study, compressed into a relatively small book (only 280 pages – large type on 7-1/2″ x 5″ sheets).  It is a monument to restraint.  The narrative ambles along in prose that is remarkable in its conventionality – he makes it look easy.  Until, seemingly out of nowhere, comes a passage like the one below.

To be sure, he himself hadn’t dared turn against God for taking his grandfather when the old man reached a timely age to die.  But for taking Alan iwth polio at twelve?  For the very existence of polio? How could there be forgiveness – let alone hallelujahs – in the face of such lunatic cruelty?  It would have seemed far less an affront to Mr. Cantor for the group gathered in mourning to declare themselves the celebrants of solar majesty, the children of an ever-constant solar deity, and in the fervent way of our hemisphere’s ancient heathen civilizations, to abandon themselves in a ritual sun dance around the dead boy’s grave – better that, better to sanctify and placate the unrefracted rays of Great Father Sun than to submit to a supreme being for whatever atrocious crime it pleases Him to perpetrate.  Yes, better by far to praise the irreplaceable generator that has sustained our existence from its beginning – better by far to honor in prayer one’s tangible daily encounter with the ubiquitous eye of gold isolated in the blue body of the sky and its immanent power to incinerate the earth – than to swallow the official lie that God is good and truckle before a cold-blooded murderer of children.  Better for one’s dignity, for one’s humanity, for one’s worth altogether, not to mention for one’s everyday idea of whatever the hell is going on here.

In addition to incredible writing, Nemesis has an interesting and unusual structure.  Nothing formulaic or gimmicky – Roth is too skilled and mature an author to fall into either of those traps. It’s just… unexpected.  Most of the novel is narrated in the omniscient, third person.  All pretty standard up till the sentence:  “Three more boys had come down with polio – Leo Feinswog, Paul Lippman, and me, Arnie Mesnikoff.”  That one sentence on page 108 is the only place in the first two sections of Nemesis where Arnie makes his presence known. Yet, with that simple “and me” the narrative has changed.  A layer of nostalgia is inserted between the reader and the plot.  The voice telling the story has moved outside of the main action, gains both a personality and a backstory of its own.  (It reminded me of the voice-over commentary in the film Stand By Me).  The distance between the reader and Bucky is extended even further in the third and final part of the novel, when Arnie finally steps onto the main stage to explain everything we have read from his perspective –  now written in the first person.  That third section reads like a soliloquy.

This revelation of the man behind the curtain should be jarring – fracturing the relationship we have established to Bucky.  And yet it has the opposite effect, pulling us further into the story and deepening our engagement and psychological understanding of our hero.  It would have been easy to simply say polio destroyed Bucky Cantor’s life and to leave it at that.  Arnie (and through him Roth) forces us to admit that while it would be easy to say that, it wouldn’t be true.  Nemesis is, in the end, a fascinating examination of Philip Roth’s everyman.

Needless to say, having finally “discovered” him, I’m looking forward to reading more by Roth.  I know very little about him other than that he has a huge following, and a list of awards that is both impressive and intimidating.  For all I know Nemesis is an atypical example of his writing.  So, Roth fans, speak up.  Which is your favorite novel?  What would  you recommend reading next? Or better yet – if you could take only one Philip Roth novel with you to a desert island, which one would it be?

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York (2010)
ISBN: 978 0 547 31835 6

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THE REPORT by Jessica Francis Kane (ARC)

“Is a mistake always an accident?  An accident always a mistake?”

I wouldn’t necessarily say that Jessica Francis Kane’s The Report is getting a lot of buzz, but there is a low hum building around it.  And that hum should only get stronger in the upcoming months. It’s one of seven novels shortlisted for the 2010 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize; it’s also scheduled to be a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection this Winter.  And because it presents as a work of historical fiction, it will appeal to the general reading public.  A more cerebral reader will  be intrigued to find that Kane has used her story to explore moral and psychological questions that remain relevant even in our current 24-hour news cycle.  In short, The Report has a little something for everyone.

Based on an actual WW2 civilian tragedy:  173 men, women & children died in the working class parish of Bethnal Green.  3 days before, the Allies had bombed Berlin.  London was on edge and expecting a reprisal attack at any time.  But the German planes didn’t come the night of March 3rd, 1943, despite the air raid sirens going off and sending the people for shelter in the underground tube station.  As the first people fell while descending the stairs  the already agitated crowd continued to push forward.  When it was over the tangle of bodies formed a wall that reached from the floor of the landing to the ceiling – blocking the stairwell completely.  Unbelievable as it sounds – the 173 deaths were all caused by asphyxiation.  Magistrate Laurence Dunne, a historical figure Kane uses as her protagonist, was assigned the job of finding out what happened.  The people demanded that there be an inquiry.

The story jumps back and forth in a time line beginning  on the day of the event and stretching out to the 30th anniversary.  A large portion of the text is dialogue.  Kane has an ear for the way people speak and Dunne’s interviews with the survivors read like transcripts.  There is a sense of the tedious sifting of information such an investigation requires as the same questions are repeated again and again, the answers varying depending on who is doing the answering.  These exchanges are some of the most enjoyable, and enlightening, moments in the novel.

30 years later we see Dunne on the other side of the desk, being questioned by a determined young documentary filmmaker (with a link to the tragedy) about what was in the final report… and what wasn’t.  As more details emerge on what has come to be called “The Bethnal Green Tragedy”, the reader can’t help being pulled further into the lives and motivations of everyone involved.  We learn that the neighborhood had a growing refugee population.  That there was an… if not a strong then at least underlying… anti-semetic paranoia in the community.  How much, if anything, did this influence what happened on March 3rd?

Kane does so many things well in this novel it’s hard to focus on just one.  Not only does she portray a stressed community who has been dealt the proverbial last straw,  she convincingly depicts individual reactions and survivor’s guilt.  I’m still haunted by the relatively minor character of the shelter Warden – a man convinced that the entire tragedy hinged on whether or not the light bulb in the entrance to the shelter was lit.  Kane also gives a moving description of the psychotic break of an already tortured young man unable to deal with the possibility that he, unaware of what was happening, was a part of the crowd pushing to enter the shelter. Both men are realistically drawn, persuasive because of the understatement Kane uses to describe their situation and  emotions.

Dunne looked down.  “Your parents said I knew the crowd wasn’t guilty.  Did Ada say that?”

“Yes.”

“What’s the opposite of guilty?” Dunne asked.

“Innocent?”  Under Dunne’s scrutiny, Paul couldn’t suppress the question mark.

“Well, they weren’t that, either.”

Can telling the truth sometimes do more harm than good?  Do intentions carry the same weight as actions?  What about redemption?  Or is justice black and white, requiring someone be to blame?   The book asks all these questions and more.  I recommend it for anyone with an interest in the London Blitz and the WW2 period.    Jessica Francis Kane has written a historical novel that takes the most basic requirement of the genre –  transporting the reader into another period – and raises the bar slightly higher for those who come after.

…talking to him was like talking to any young person about the war years:  They spoke from a background of black-and-white pictures, while your memories were very much in color.  They asked about the rationing, while you saw the coupons.  They spoke about the public morale, when what you remembered were the faces.  Try as they might, they heard only a chord or two, while the whole symphony still roared in your head…

The Report somehow manages to play for its’ readers the full symphony of motivations, emotions, personalities and perspectives; all revolving around a single, tragic event.  Yet the novel has meaning beyond the incident in Bethnal Green.  Combine that with strong writing, skillful plotting and absolutely brilliant pacing – The Report has the potential to be this Fall’s sleeper hit.  (And is a great pick for book groups looking for a novel with multiple discussion points).

Publisher:  Greywolf Press, New York.  (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 55597 565 4

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