Well, this is the last novel in the Roth omnibus and it really takes the book out on a high note. I’m not a hundred percent sure about whether this one or Indignation is better. Luckily, I can call them both masterpieces and not decide. This one takes place during a polio outbreak in a small Jewish neighborhood in the fifties and the effects of that outbreak on, in particular, Bucky Cantor, an athletic young neighborhood coach. Even for Roth, this book is bleaker than usual. Indignation, for instance, still places blame for the horrible events squarely on the shoulders of its protagonist, but in Nemesis, the focus is on the unpredictability, randomness and arbitrary nature of human existence. It’s a book that kept reminding me of a line from Detour, an early noir film; the movie closes with one of the sharpest statements of the noir philosophy ever: “Sometimes fate puts the finger on you for no reason at all.” But here it isn’t even really fate; it’s just . . . nothing. It just happens; death and illness and tragedy lay waste to your life and it just happens and that’s all there is to it. Cantor is a character that’s incredibly compelling and his struggles with guilt and fear and bitterness are never less than deeply effecting and gripping. It’s a book that is consistently wonderful all the way through and it’s a real glimpse of just what a master Roth is at creating atmosphere. The claustrophobic, blisteringly hot neighborhood is painted with incredible dread and doom and the summer heat nearly rolls off the page. If I wanted to really get into the philosophy of the last section of the book, I could talk all day, but I won’t do that since you need to discover what Roth’s getting at by yourself – it’s both a perfect distillation of the philosophy I mentioned above and also so much more. Anyway, all I can really say is that Nemesis isn’t just a great book; it’s an absolutely essential one. Highly recommended. 4 stars.
tl;dr – bleak, brutally stark novel about a polio epidemic in a small neighborhood is grim, gripping and a powerful work of both emotion and philosophy. 4 stars.