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Easy Reader: Philip Roth's Nemesis an Instant Classic

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On the page where Philip Roth's previous books are listed before his new novel begins, the categorized titles of his collected works ("Zuckerman Books," "Roth Books," "Kepesh Books"), are joined by a category that hadn't appeared as recently as his last and below-par release, The Humbling. The category, called "Nemeses: Short Novels," includes the new title, Nemesis, along with Everyman, Exit Ghost, The Humbling -- all written within the last decade.

It looks as if, in adding this category to his accumulation of knock-out volumes, Roth has decided he's been embarked on a series of short novels about protagonists afflicted by a psychological short-coming that becomes a besetting affliction. The "Nemeses" grouping calls attention to Roth's continuing concern with men who may not be stricken with what's often defined as a "tragic flaw" but who nevertheless come to live debilitated lives of their own making.

Roth's newest focal figure is not -- repeat, not -- a middle-aged man stalking a much younger woman. He's Bucky Conrad, born Eugene, and the cynosure of what is certainly one of the prolific author's finest, most affecting volumes. Twenty-three when first encountered, Bucky -- born Eugene but nicknamed early by his grandfather -- doesn't qualify as a full-blown tragic hero, but when first encountered, he has indisputable heroic dimensions. He's a physical-education instructor working at a playground in Newark's predominantly Jewish Weequahic section.

Yessiree, Roth is back pacing the street's of his hometown, but not, as in The Plot Against America, foraging for a parable. He wants to tell a real (well, fictional, of course) story about the summer of 1944 when a virulent polio epidemic struck his city (as it took its terrifying toll across the land), ending too many children's lives and squelching Bucky's bright prospects forever.

Although barely five-feet-five inches, Bucky is a superlative javelin thrower, weight-lifter and all-around athlete as well as a good-hearted, upstanding young man who wants nothing more than to inculcate decency in his charges. He's abruptly and devastatingly thwarted, however, when the boys he's coaching on the baseball diamond begin dropping, and he's at a loss to do anything for them.

Frustrated with the circumstances -- and especially with a God he refuses to accept -- he sees a chance to escape when his girlfriend and eventual fiancée, doctor's daughter Marcia Steinberg, secures him a replacement position at the camp where she's a counselor. Joining her in what initially feels like a paradise with Marcia and him the resident Adam and Eve, Bucky can't stop feeling he's deserted the Newark boys.

His self-doubt only increases when first one Indian Hill camper and then others, including one of Marcia's younger twin sisters, begin showing symptoms of polio. (Roth writes some of his most hilariously straight-faced satirical passages about the camp's pseudo-Indian rituals.) His reasoning is that, although the precise causes of the disease have not been pinpointed, he must be a carrier. His sees convictions confirmed when he, too, falls prey to polio and athletic prowess is forever stripped from him.

Seemingly told by an omniscient narrator, Nemesis is actually recounted by Arnold -- "Arnie" to Bucky -- Mesnikoff, one of the infected Weequahic boys crippled for life. Arnie runs into the enfeebled Bucky in the changed Newark of 1971, befriends him and over many subsequent meetings learns the details relayed dispassionately here -- not the least of the polio siege's aftermath being Bucky's deliberate estrangement from Marcia Steinberg.

Roth's somewhat late introduction of Arnie is about the only glitch in the story -- as long as his misuse of 'myriad" can be brushed off. About midway through the novel, the phrase "and me, Arnie Mesnikoff" pops up, setting a reader to wonder for too long before being filled in just how this first-person "me" knows so much.

What Arnie hears is the devastating tale of a man who believes he's confessing his guilt but, because he's conscientious to a fault, is merely electing to assume responsibility for the death of so many young boys. When Arnie insists that, according to medical findings, there's no proof Bucky was a carrier, Bucky replies, "There's no proof that I wasn't." He steadfastly refuses to be talked out of his belief.

Wags might refer to Bucky's posture as an apotheosis of "Jewish guilt," but that's likely not Roth's aim. Nor is any larger implication. He's always maintained he refrains from symbolism in his writing. So he'd undoubtedly laugh at any suggestion that Bucky Cantor -- whose mother died in childbirth, whose father disappeared after release from prison for theft and who was raised by his mother's parents -- is a metaphor for an America that was once gloriously promising, once seemingly invincible but has long since engaged in a destructive plot against itself.

So forget that, and take Nemesis for what it is: possibly Philip Roth's saddest work of art -- and like Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, right up there with the classics.