No Joke

by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 304 pp., $26

Nemesis is unlike anything that Philip Roth has ever written. Humor is an absence and God a presence. American history, which normally captivates Roth when writing about Newark, the central setting in Nemesis, goes unexplored. The historical rhythms are there, but they are grim and inscrutable, hardly the melody of post-war progress and plenty that fascinated Roth in his literary youth. The splendid self-making documented in such later novels as American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain has given way to "the force of circumstance," to the unjust, unknowable dictates of fate. The novel's protagonist, Bucky Cantor, does not pursue a new self. Only reluctantly does he pursue self-gratification; he is neo-Victorian in his attachment to duty and very much the aspiring Jewish hero. For all of this he is punished by his heartless God the way a pleasure-seeking rake might be punished in a morality play.

Roth has not returned to the place of his famous debut Goodbye, Columbus because, as a novelist, he has never really left Newark, New Jersey. One section of American Pastoral is titled "Paradise Remembered" and another "Paradise Lost." The paradise in question is Newark before 1967, where immigrants made their homes and survived the Great Depression. In the 1940s, their children struggled to win a just war, and then devoted themselves to the wholesome labor of success. In Nemesis, the streets are the familiar Newark streets; Weequahic the familiar Newark neighborhood. Even the patriotic wartime ambiance is familiar from the opening pages of American Pastoral. Yet the city itself is strangely terrifying.

Roth ImageNor is the Jewish-American world of Nemesis the same world that Roth has previously chronicled. The novels after Goodbye, Columbus can be read as meditations on Jewish-American freedom. Never before in the history of the Diaspora had Jews been as free as these post-war American citizens—the Patimkins, the Portnoys, the Zuckermans. The Zuckerman novels, from The Ghost Writer through The Human Stain, portray Newark progeny breaking free from Newark, breaking free, really, from the limiting dictates of Jewish history. Mickey Sabbath, in Sabbath's Theater, takes this freedom to its logical extreme. As a youth, he leaves Newark for the open seas, rather like Melville's Ishmael; but he is an Ishmael without tact or piety, tasting every pleasure, risking every joke, and pursuing every infidelity.

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About the Author

Michael Kimmage, an associate professor of history at the Catholic University of America, is the author of The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers and the Lessons of Anti-Communism. He is currently working on a book about Philip Roth and the city of Newark.


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