It is tempting to say that this book is “ripped from the headlines,” only it was published in 2010. Roth’s novel is the story of an outbreak in Jewish neighborhood in New Jersey during World War II. Roth’s insights into how fear is just as contagious as disease is eerily prescient. The story focuses on Bucky Cantor who is good for everything – the neighborhood kids and families love him, he’s great at his job, he takes care of his grandmother – but thinks he’s good for nothing – he can’t enlist because of poor eyesight, he takes a job in the country to escape the city (when he knows others can’t, etc.), and so he begins to get angry at God.
I’ve only read a handful of Roth’s novels, but this one strikes me as more artful than others. I loved The Human Stain, but that was more because of the topic than the writing. Here, despite a somewhat contrived choice when it comes to narration, Roth crafts sentences that capture Bucky’s fear and fury quite eloquently.
The title is well-chosen here. Who or what is the nemesis?
I’d love to say, given current events, that this book has a happy ending. But it doesn’t. It’s not a completely tragic ending either. It’s just real. I imagine Roth’s ending will, one day, resonate with current events as well.
Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake.