Roth’s ‘Nemesis’ Explores the Ideals of Boyhood

'Nemesis' by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin)

Shimwoo Lee

'Nemesis' is available in bookstores now.

Childhood may always be a time for epic battles of heroism; for fights between cops and robbers, between superheroes and supervillains, between best friends and playground bullies. Perhaps nobody has more convincingly tied this simplistic morality of young children to a single time and place than Philip Roth, who, in works such as “The Plot Against America” and his most recent novel, “Nemesis,” has made his boyhood home of 1940s Newark, New Jersey into the ultimate arena of good and evil. American troops were fighting the Nazis, and Roth’s social context was that of Jews hovering just above or below middle class. The parameters of good and evil in the war abroad seemed equally clear as in the games of boys on a playground.

In Bucky Cantor, the protagonist of “Nemesis,” Roth has crafted the ultimate expression of this world order. Strong-willed, principled, and saddled with a heavy load of guilt and responsibility, 23-year-old Bucky cannot fulfill his fantasy of going to fight in the war because of poor eyesight. Instead, he seeks to enrich the lives of young boys through teaching sports. The arrival of the polio epidimec, however, threatens to destroy this modest dream. Through a brilliant narrative conceit and timeless descriptions of boyhood, Roth creates a modern-day tragic hero who embodies the fragile nobility of his time.

The narrative structure of Roth’s novel is supremely effective in developing both the internality and externality of Bucky’s character. Roth starts off with a third-person limited narration of Bucky’s consciousness told by a minor character, the unnoticed Arnie Mesnikoff. This allows the reader to see the whole world imbued with Bucky’s sensibility while keeping his consciousness at a slight distance. About two thirds of the way through the novel, a turn takes place: Arnie becomes a first person narrator and describes his experience meeting Bucky thirty years later as an utterly changed man. This jarring shift encourages a complete reevaluation of the book’s first half, revealing Bucky’s persona from the outside and divulging his significant limitations. Despite this unsparing analysis of the protagonist’s fall, a final scene of the athletic, 23-year-old Bucky implies that his greatness in youth may redeem the troubles of his older self.

This triumph of boyhood in “Nemesis” extends beyond Bucky, illustrated in a series of sketches of the different boys in Bucky’s life. Because the narrative touches on the stories of several of Bucky’s young wards, Roth paints a unified impression of an age more than of any one personality. Alan, the first child who dies of polio, is described by his father as “the best boy…always did his schoolwork. Always helped his mother. Not a selfish bone in his body…Our house was where all their friends came to have a good time. The place was always full of boys.” Alan, like all the other boys Roth depicts, is faultless, strong, innocent and unselfish. His father’s recollection that their house “was always full of boys” indicates an indiscriminate love for all young men. Even the Kopferman brothers, who are described as respectively “belligerent” and  “mischievous”, are more importantly praised as “uncontrollably energetic…strong, burly boys, good at sports.” It seems that the vitality and athleticism of these boys supercedes their moral character.

Bucky appears to be the apotheosis of the innocent power of boyhood. When a group of Italians comes to the playground where Bucky is working and threaten to spread polio, Bucky refuses to back down and respectfully browbeats them into leaving town. Afterwards, the narrator explains, “His confident, decisive manner, his weightlifter’s strength, his joining in every day to enthusiastically play ball right alongside the rest of us—all this had made him a favorite of the playground regulars… but after the incident with the Italians he became an outright hero, an idolized, protective, heroic older brother.” Bucky’s physical and moral strength here combine to form an ideal of an inspiring young leader, and one who is all the more astounding to the kids for wanting to play baseball with them every summer day. This sort of heroism is plain, and only from a child’s perspective does it possess grandeur. And yet, because it is only from this charmed perspective that the reader sees Bucky, Roth succeeds in connecting this folksy image to heroic stature in our own limited view.

While the simplicity and childishness of Bucky’s moral system elicits a sense of enchantment, it also portends his ultimate self-destruction. After leaving Newark and its rising rate of polio infection for a camp in the Poconos where his fiancée works, Bucky feels “almost able to forget the betrayal of his playground kids…[but] there confronting him were his ideals—ideals of truthfulness and strength fostered in him by his grandfather, ideals of courage and sacrifice that he shared with Jake and Dave…his ideals as a man.” The reference to his leaving Newark as “betrayal” reflects his cripplingly severe sense of responsibility. His ill-defined, abstract set of values, tellingly ascribed to the paternal figure of his life, revolve around a lofty, unrealizable ideal of manhood.

This ethical stance is not only similar to Bucky’s playground existence in its romantic idealism, but also in its childish conception of manhood and heroism. It is this naïve faith in human agency and unending personal responsibility that leads Bucky to his downfall. Through this sensitive portrait of his protagonist, Roth demonstrates the heights of youthful heroism and the tragedy of its ultimate loss.

—Staff writer Alexander E. Traub can be reached at atraub@college.harvard.edu.

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