Books of the year 2010 | Jason Cowley

Nemesis by Philip Roth

Cunningly constructed and written with lyric economy, Nemesis (Jonathan Cape, £16.99) returns us to the Newark of Philip's Roth's myth-encrusted boyhood. It is the extraordinarily hot summer of 1944, and polio is ravaging the Jewish neighbourhood of Weequahic, killing and maiming children. As the epidemic takes hold, the characters begin to resemble those in the plague-stricken Algerian port city of Oran in Camus's La Peste: it is as if they are quarantined, abandoned by the rest of the world.

The central character is Bucky Cantor, an immensely strong athlete who teaches physical education at a boys' playground (how Roth loves his local sporting heroes) but has been unable to join the US army because of poor eyesight. Nemesis has the bleak inexorability of Greek tragedy: we read aghast as the good but stubborn and God-hating Bucky is destroyed by forces over which he has no control.

At the age of 77, and little more than a year after publishing The Humbling, a work so ludicrously bad as to be laughable, Roth has given us a novel that is as moving and surprising as it is cruel and melancholy. A minor late work from a great writer, but a pleasure to read all the same.

 

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