Fiction / The Enemy Within

The final volume of Philip Roth's Nemeses quartet, a late-period meditation on mortality, is a powerful finale that gives the previous three novels a unified shape - and instructs us in the tragedy of being good.

 Nemesis by Philip Roth. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pages, $26

Philip Roth

 Shortly before he departed this world, Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth's long-time fictional alter ego, feverishly drafted a theatrical scene set to Richard Strauss' "Four Last Songs." Zuckerman explains his fixation on Strauss' quartet: "For the profundity that is achieved not by complexity but by clarity and simplicity. For the purity of the sentiment about death and parting and loss. For the ways one is drawn into the tremendous arc of heartbreak. The composer drops all masks and, at the age of eighty-two, stands before you naked. And you dissolve."

This description came in "Exit Ghost" (2007 ). A few years later, in an interview, Roth described his recent non-Zuckerman short novels, "Everyman" (2006 ), "Indignation" (2008 ) and "The Humbling" (2009 ), as the first three sections of his own late-period quartet. The final piece of this quartet has now arrived, with "Nemesis," a powerful finale that gives the previous three novels both a unified shape and a name. (A note at the beginning of the new volume registers this quartet in the Roth canon under the single title, "Nemeses: Short Novels." )

With this final installment, the Straussian "arc of tremendous heartbreak" - in four parts, like the heart itself - has reached its shattering conclusion. Reading the Nemeses quartet for the first time as a unified work leaves little doubt that the slimness of each volume and the apparent artlessness of the prose have quietly accumulated into a major statement by the 77-year-old novelist. If the regularity of these recent publications has come to seem as routine as the autumnal equinox, it turns out to be equally as profound.

Bucky Cantor is another Roth Everyman (an alternate title to this quartet could have been "Everymen" ). He is unremarkable in the way that any man is unremarkable in the face of a lethal plague. A polio epidemic has gripped 1944 Newark. Even as the horror of war is held to the edges of the homeland - with U.S. forces repelling German U-Boats off the Eastern seaboard - death has nevertheless crept undetected into the city. As in "The Plot Against America" (2004), Roth takes a gothic view of the home front as the site of a demonic interior struggle, more horrifying precisely because it originates from within. By locating the conflict of self at an invisible, pathogenic starting point, "Nemesis" goes even further into the interior than the political horror imagined in "The Plot Against America."

As the blistering Newark summer drags on, the polio outbreak becomes a full-fledged epidemic that arbitrarily kills and maims healthy people, mostly children, and destroys families overnight. Panic and blind recrimination deform the urban social fabric. Nobody knows who or what to blame. The plague has no known cause and is spread by an unknown process - and into this unknown, people project their nightmares, their superstitions, their ethnic and class anxieties, their fears of any outlying Other. In one particularly harrowing scene, a good-natured neighborhood boy, overcome with terror after hearing of his friend's sudden death, turns violent against a mentally retarded child. Ever-calm Bucky Cantor stands resolutely at the center of this widespread panic. He is at the helm of an embattled ship, the popular leader of the city's most polio-prone population, its children. After his recent graduation from college, Bucky was hired as a school phys-ed teacher. During the plague summer, he works as a playground director.

Courageous and humorless

Bucky is thoroughly hard-boiled - a good and courageous and humorless man, steady in his habits, sturdy of mind and body. His passion for sports and for physically conditioning children - especially first-generation American Jewish children - is based on an ethic of strident self-reliance. Bucky's father was a convict, his mother died in childbirth. He was raised with his grandfather's austere shopkeeper morality. He first developed his muscles hauling crates in the shop. The shop was also the place in which he earned his scrappy childhood nickname, his reward for a brave assault on a rat in the storage room. This was a defining moment in his development as a reliable citizen, a protector. To Bucky's profound disappointment, bad eyesight kept him from the righteous battle against the Nazis. His shot at heroism will happen, if it is to happen at all, on the Newark playground. The summer of the polio plague is to be his crucible as a man. He is faced with the decision of whether to escape the death-rattled inner-city playground and take a job at a wealthy upstate summer camp, where he will join his lovely, rich fiancee in a lush, green and, most important, polio-free environment. In the wooded surroundings, the couple will finally be able to enjoy a moment of privacy.

As with the other Everymen characters of the Nemeses cycle, Bucky's story is framed as a simple morality tale, related by a bystander who has adopted a stance of resignation and doomed neutrality, occasionally punctuated by frustrated gestures of Hawthorne-inflected "if only." The intention here is to tip readers off early - we are meant to understand that the force of Bucky's undoing doesn't come from its suddenness. No, the effect indeed is deadlier than a shock: It is a slow, awful, grimly obvious inevitability. In other words, high tragedy. Bucky's fate is inscribed into his character, and this character is made plain from the outset. His goodness, we know, cannot save him. On the contrary, it is precisely his sublime sense of responsibility that will lead him - Spoiler Alert - to the unspeakable conclusion that he is the cause of it all. Unlike the heroes of the previous three novels in the Nemeses quartet, Bucky is not mortality's victim but its unwitting agent. This is a horror beyond one's own death. In an awful epiphany, a Munchian scream that results in nothing less than the dispossession of his soul, Bucky becomes convinced that he is the Angel of Death:

"All at once he heard a loud shriek. It was the shriek of the woman downstairs from the Michaels family, terrified that her child would catch polio and die. Only he didn't just hear the shriek - he was the shriek."

Bucky is the nightmare of his own humanism. He is obliterated by his hard-earned sense of human agency. In Roth's world, the Nemesis, the deity who metes out cruel justice, is not divine but all too human. And its delivery system isn't polio but Bucky's tragic interpretation of it. While Bucky is preoccupied by the worn-out theological Problem of Evil, Roth is focused on a more pressing mortal conundrum: the tragedy of being good. The problem is not why God allows evil things to happen to good people but rather why even good people - especially good people - blame themselves for these evil things, why they allow themselves to be crushed into a pitiful oblivion by their virtue.

Roth's late-period meditation on mortality ends with an ode to the noble male body. It is one of the finest expressions of his fervent materialism. In "Nemesis," unlike in the first three short novels, he locates the tragedy of mortality firmly in the life, not the death, of this body. Death itself isn't a tragedy but simply a fact. But a good man who spends his days twisted by self-torment, who has relinquished the strivings of body and soul - self-condemned to a living death - a man for whom biological death isn't the problem but the solution, this is a man who embodies the tragedy of mortality. The trajectory of this tragedy can be seen in the contrast between late and early Roth. "Nemesis," like "Goodbye, Columbus," is set in Jewish Newark and structured around the story of a star-crossed romance between a working-class young man and a wealthy young woman. In both stories, the man comes from a difficult home and is welcomed into the tantalizing confines of his girlfriend's rich family. There is a direct literary lineage between the recurring image in "Nemesis" of a big, juicy Prufrockian peach, upon which Bucky feasts in his girlfriend's home, and the overflow of fruit that "grows" with spectacular abundance in the Patimkin family refrigerator in 1959's "Goodbye, Columbus." But at age 26, Roth found love only temporarily derailed by the complications of birth control - by the possibilities and impossibilities, and the comedy, of making life; more than 50 years later, he returns to this same home and finds love cursed by forces considerably darker and more permanent.

How far into the interior of his former home can Roth go? As Eliot wrote at the conclusion of his own late-period quartet, "We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time."

Avi Steinberg is the author of "Running the Books," a memoir of his adventures as a prison librarian, published last month by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.