The Biblical story of Job can be read on several levels. On the one hand, Job is the faithful servant of a powerful God, never failing in his faith, even when he is undone by sorrows. It is also the story of a man made sport of by unseen powers: When God succumbs to Satan's dare and permits Job to be tested, one reacts with moral horror. Job's plight is undeserved; in a just universe, righteousness matters. But the world, we all learn to our sorrow, is not just. And, for many, including me, the heavens are silent.
Bucky Cantor is a young athlete and educator in Newark. It is 1944. He cannot join his friends on the battlelines of the Second World War. His vision is too poor. So he stays at home, an earnest physical education instructor and playground supervisor in the city of his birth. Bucky worries about doing the right thing, setting a good example, being useful. While he lack's Job's riches, he lacks nothing in terms of an aspiration to do justice. He is the protagonist in Philip Roth's latest novel, Nemesis.
As summer settles into one sizzling day followed by another, polio sweeps through the city, eventually landing with special vengeance in the Jewish section of Newark. Bucky's students start to die, and suddenly, the frontlines of a life and death struggle have come home. Bucky has the potential for heroism. He can stand firm amid the panic, and guide his young charges to safety.
Unless they all die. Unless he, too, is infected. Unless death sweeps through the city without regard to virtue.
Bucky's mother died at birth, and his father is absent from his life, a thief sent away to do time when Bucky was a toddler. The father never returned. Bucky was raised by his grandmother and grandfather. Only the grandmother is now living, and she hovers in the background as a nuturing spirit now in need of succor as the shades draw down. Bucky is alone, but not quite. He has the love of a young woman off at summer camp; her father is a phsyician, a leading light in the city. When Bucky decides to propose, he asks the girl's father for permission first. Bucky is delighted to have finally found a family and love and the pleasing prospect of a lifelong sense of belonging.
But then polio strikes. When it strikes too close to home, children die and are crippled for life. God's hand at work? "They all joined the rabbi in reciting the mourner's prayer," at a service for a child struck dead overnight. They are "praising God's righteousness, praising, unstintingly, the very God who allowed everything, including children, to be destroyed by death." Bucky rails against God. "He was struck by how lives diverge and by how powerless each of us is up against the force of circumstance. And where does God figure in this?"
I do not want to give away the plot here. This is a fine book, written with a spare sort of elegance that makes me drop everything once the annual Roth offering is released to spend a day in commune with this acute observer of all things human. Suffice it to say that, in the end, Bucky rails against himself, and rejects the great gifts of love so willingly offered. He becomes embittered, an anti-Job who counted life's gruesome circumstance as a sign of God's malevolence rather than as a test of his faith. An observer says of Bucky, years after the fateful summer of 1944: "His conception of God was of an omnipotent being who was a union not of three persons in one Godhead, as in Christianity, but of two -- a sick fuck and an evil genius."
Bucky becomes the God he scorns, a malevolent loner unable to accept the blind play of contingency; and unwilling to love. "He has to find a necessity for what happens. There is an epidemic and he needs a reason for it. He has to ask why. Why? Why? That it is pointless, contingent, proposterous and tragic will not satisfy him." When God fails to provide the answer, Bucky's playing at theodicy faild, as do the efforts of all to explain evil in a world goverened by a good and omnipotent God. He turns the moralist's harrowing eye on himself. He broods now in his middle age, alone, trapped by the sorrows he saw as a young man. He becomes his own god and out of the need to find answers, he blames himself.
Bucky Cantor is a venal, and depressing, kind of Job. There is no mystery here. No faith. No sense of the significance of the human spirit in a world of blind forces. There is simply suffering and the despairing demand for an accounting. Bucky Cantor is half-believer and half-atheist. This unsatisfactory hybrid spawns far less than spiritual vigor. Roth's gift is this vision of despair lived quietly, a world of folks coloring within life's lines long after the lines, and life, have lost their meaning. Somehow this darkest of novelists conveys all this with a grace and art his characters cannot see: It remains one of the more astounding ironies about an author who writes so elegantly about despair.