:: Article

Do The Right Thing

By Max Dunbar.


Nemesis, Philip Roth, Cape 2010

Since this autumn I have been reading and rereading Philip Roth. There was a weekend in October where I did almost nothing except read Philip Roth and watch The Sopranos. Reading and watching nothing outside New Jersey – there is even a reference to the glove factory (Newark Maid?) in one of the Sopranos later episodes.

It would be hard to argue now, as I did with another Roth maniac over the summer, that there is no misogyny in the books. Several are about a Great Man – The Swede, Iron Rinn, Coleman Silk – who gets taken down, often by a deranged and duplicitous female. That said, I’m still not convinced of intentional sexism. Roth’s women are as original and well realised as the males, if not more. I’m thinking here of the hedonistic innkeeper Drenka Balich, or the fascinating backstory of Texan aspiring writer Jamie Logan. Roth is particularly good at female dialogue and relationship back and forth between men and women – argument, banter, pillow talk, the way lovers elicit and exchange information.

The real theme of the books is that we never really know people. For all Zuckerman’s pretensions to omniscient narration, his accounts are full of assumptions and speculation where the facts have to end. Did Sabbath kill his first wife? Is Jamie having an affair with Richard Kliman? Why does Coleman Silk disguise his ethnicity? Don’t know. You won’t ever know the full story. It’s not pointless to try – we can learn from people, we can get anecdotes, insight, drama. But you will never get the full story of another life. You will never truly know another person because most people don’t know themselves.

Roth saves the edge of his anger for those who not only presume to know but will make judgements and act on those judgements based on their presumption. Nobody knows, Delphine Roux.

Over  Christmas I’ve been catching up with the short later Roth books. The latest is Nemesis and it’s about a polio epidemic in wartime Newark. Kept out of the army thanks to poor eyesight, playground director Bucky Cantor fights his home guard against the disease.

Of course there’s a limit to what Bucky can achieve. He’s not a doctor or a scientist. What Roth does best here is to capture the confusion about what causes and spreads polio, so that fretting parents blame mailslots, hot dogs, unsterilised milk bottles, and these rumours of transmission and cure themselves spread like polio germs and pick up the power to close businesses and affect the community almost as much as the disease itself. All Bucky can do is stop the Italians from spitting on the playground, but it’s enough. He’s a local hero and his advice and support have some demonstrable impact.

‘You do only the right thing, the right thing and the right thing and the right thing, going back all the way.’ This is the parent of one of the polio victims. ‘You try to be a thoughtful person, a reasonable person, an accommodating person, and then this happens. Where is the sense in life?’ That’s the lament of the Swede – the assimilated hardworking American-Jewish male who fights for his country and takes over his dad’s glove factory only for his daughter to blow up his dreams along with the local post office. The lack of mortal karma is another big theme in Roth (also a big theme in life: as Morvern Callar’s dad says, most people work hard and end up with nothing) the anger of the good man who does everything correctly and still goes to the wall.

In American Pastoral this realisation that there is no automatic reward left the Swede in a state of repressed fury, surrounded by dinner guests that he’s just come to realise are philanderers and hypocrites. Bucky Cantor is more thoughtful. To the question Where is the sense in life? he replies: ‘It doesn’t seem to have any.’ You don’t get credit for doing the right thing. So you might as well do the wrong thing.

At the boy’s funeral he questions to himself the idea of worshipping a God who – presumably – created polio with which to destroy his children. ‘How could there be forgiveness – let alone hallelujahs – in the face of such lunatic cruelty?’

It would have seemed far less of an affront to Mr Cantor for the group gathered in mourning to declare themselves the celebrants of solar majesty, the children of an ever-constant solar deity, and, in the fervent way of our hemisphere’s ancient heathen civilisations, to abandon themselves in a ritual sun dance around the dead boy’s grave – better that, better to sanctify and placate the unrefracted rays of Great Father Sun than to submit to a supreme being for whatever atrocious crime it pleases Him to perpetrate.

And soon after Bucky makes the decision to escape to the Poconos summer camp where he can spend his nights on a secluded island with his fiancee and his days teaching non-contaminated children how to dive. And of course the guilt catches up with him: he comes to believe that he’s a draft dodger in the war against polio – worse, that he has turned his face against God and deserves his punishment.

Here there are no acts of God. Things happen just-because: the plague is a ‘malicious absurdity of nature’. ‘He is a noble,’ Roth says, ‘And he gets fucked.’ We should remember that Philip Roth is old enough to remember polio as a real thing. The seething summer of Newark 1944 is evoked with vigour and exactitude: the smell of tarmac, empty diners in the middle of the weekday, no young men because they’re all away fighting. A writer in his forties would have written Nemesis as entirely tragic – why does this good man destroy himself for no reason?

The narrator, an old Weequahic pupil and a polio victim, tries to persuade Bucky not to blame himself, and ruminates about the playground director’s true motivations – nobody knows, Delphine Roux. But on one level you can sense that Bucky is a traitor, he does deserve retribution. A novelist born in the fifties or sixties, of a generation that rationalised the walk by on the other side, and a society that thinks in terms of entitlement and grievance rather than duty and happiness – a Nemesis from such an author would not have the killer edge.

And yet Roth’s latest novel is more than a period piece or morality tale. The new century will bring new diseases and more wars.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 28th, 2010.