Philip Roth
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
This is all about Buddy Canton, of Newark, one of many young people who came down with polio in the summer of 1944. We learn here what happened to him and his life and the fall-apart world that was WWII America (his own world falling apart along with his body).

And this is Roth, the Philip Roth who has before taken our lives, with all their ups-and-downs, and made them funny, scathing, tender, sad. But here we have a different story. This disability business has infected the author, made him ill in a way we never thought possible: it has turned him into a big bore.

Perhaps it's not his fault. Disease and disability and body-loss can be a terrible bore. If someone were to ask me to tell them what disability has been like all these years I'd probably say that it was "uncomfortable"; at times a bit tedious, if not messy. But there can be bizarre compensations.

We become masters in a brand new task, thrust on us willy-nilly. We learn to reconfigure the world so we can get around without falling on our asses (or getting people too excited); we learn to get in and out of bathrooms and stores and bedrooms and buses and bars and cars and trains built solely for Walkies.

On top of that, we learn to deal with doctors, physical therapists, "caregivers," people who have to pretend to be distant from our bodies. Then there can be others who care for us ... sometimes too much. We may appear to them to be vulnerable --- like everyone else in the world, we are --- but we don't want them to use that against us. Or for us. It's a tight squeeze out there in Realityland.

§     §     §

The author has given us an inspiring athelete --- the neighborhood kids love him --- and used his disability to turn him into a physical wreck and an emotional basket-case. No wonder Buddy is so depressed. I would be too if I had to live with all the shit Roth has laid on him.

He calls himself "disfigured and maimed," talks about --- oh me --- being "confined to a wheelchair." Soon enough, his anti-body rant makes me want to throw him and the book across the room. We're being offererd a good man who has been scarred, maimed, bruised, twisted, torn, gutted in soul and body, then turned into a full-time non-stop loser ... all because he's a crip. Spare me.

Roth has apparently never heard that ancient and honorable lay, You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you maybe can get what you need.

Our author has tried to put himself into the head of a disabled person. Bad choice. As a Walkie, he can't know, cannot begin to know the smell or taste or feel of it. He won't, at least for awhile, because he is what we call "the temporarily abled."

He tells us in the "Acknowledgments" that he did his homework before launching Nemesis, reading books by Edmund Sass, Nina Seavy, Julie Silver and Daniel Wilson. I've read most of these and I am here to tell you that he could have given himself a more lively, more engrossing background.

He could have read Gallagher on Roosevelt and Hockenberry on his life after the accident and Robert Murphy's masterful The Body Silent and John Callahan's gorgeous Don't Worry, He a Won't Get Far on Foot. These writers go well beyond their specific infirmities to tell about a body suddenly thrown out of kilter, living with a new mind-set (if you will), a new self, one that you battle at your own risk. Buddy Canton waged a war with his body. And he lost. As Pyrrhus wrote, "Another victory like this and we are done for."

My suggestion for the reader who is truly interested in the disability business: avoid this one like the plague; go straight to Callahan, Hockenberry et al. They know, and know well, what one of my favorite shrinks called "entitlement." In both senses of the word.

§     §     §

Apparently, I am not the only one who thinks that Roth has blown it in this, his thirtieth novel. Tim Parks writing in last November's London Review of Books managed to treat the Moaning Disability Blues gingerly --- most reviewers side-stepped it --- but offers the intriguing idea that the title Nemesis "hangs over the book, inviting the reader to interpret events in the light of Greek tragedy and in particular the grim goddess who made sure that nobody would challenge the authority of the gods."

    But so brazenly are we thrust towards this textbook enigma that readers may find themselves more intrigued by the author's loyalty to tired literary stratagems than interested in the fate of the characters who were never much more than pieces on a chessboard.

Writers who are not disabled should be very careful when they take on our world. Soon enough Roth will be learning what will be growing in the garden of his psyche. Agony, fury sometimes ... possibly shame. And (if he is wise, or lucky, or both) not a few triumphs, even --- dare I say it? --- elation.

The ultimate blessing of Nemesis is not Buddy's "wasted" limbs; what he (and the author) call his "disfigured and maimed body;" certainly not his self-imposed psychological trauma.

Rather, it is Roth's sweet picture of an ancient, gilded age, in Newark (of all places) from almost seventy years ago ... the lively neighborhoods where we grew up in the early 1940s with the trolley-cars and storefront grocers and butchers and five-and-dimes, where tee-shirted men lounged about in the yards while the boys played stepball and the girls jumped rope there at the side of the Weequahic playground, singing out as they played, singing out to all of us:

    A, my name is Agnes
    And my husband's name is Alphonse
    We come from Alabama
    And we bring back apples!

    K, my name is Kay
    And my husband's name is Karl,
    We come from Kansas
    And we bring back kangaroos!

--- L. W. Milam
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