Nemesis – Philip Roth
After the publication of Nemesis Roth stated that he would write no more novels. Did the timing of his decision have anything to do with this book? Did he labor over it? Did he see signs of failing powers? Or did he feel it constituted a final statement? His last work has none of the wildness, humor, vulgarity and verbal inventiveness of Portnoy’s Complaint. But Portnoy was a warped arrow on an extended rant, while Mr. Cantor (Bucky) is a very straight arrow; morally, he always tries to do that which is honorable. He and his fiancee have sex; but, since love is motivating them, it’s treated with respect and restraint. On a few occasions minor characters spout some bad language, but never Bucky. The stilted, formal quality of the prose reflects Mr. Cantor’s personality (the same could be said for the absence of humor in the book). That he’s a plodder, and predictable, doesn’t make Bucky uninteresting. About those two names – he’s Mr. Cantor in the opening section, entitled “Equatorial Newark.” In the second section, “Indian Hill” (a children’s summer camp in the Poconos), Mr. Cantor becomes Bucky. The plot revolves around the polio epidemic that ravaged parts of our country in the summer of 1944. Though powerless, Bucky tries to do the right thing. He wavers once – in choosing to leave the hard-hit Jewish section of Newark for the safety of Indian Hill (and the arms of Marcia). The peacefulness of life in the summer camp left me unprepared when Roth shifts into another gear, and we’re propelled along by an urgent rush of events. Things end abruptly, and suddenly we’re in the closing section – “Reunion.” The reunion takes place twenty-seven years later and is between a first person narrator and Mr. Cantor. I found this section to be moving. I won’t go into why, or what had become of Bucky (and Marcia). In this expertly-constructed novel an emotional reevaluation occurred for me; it wasn’t until the last sixty pages that I knew how much I cared about Bucky. Going back to my opening questions: maybe Nemesis does contain a closing statement. At the playground where Bucky taught phys ed the boys saw him as “easygoing, kind, fair-minded, thoughtful, stable, gentle, vigorous, muscular.” To them he was both exemplary and revered. They also saw him as invincible, and in this they were wrong. The two nemeses Bucky cannot defeat are the fiend which inflicts suffering (he calls it God) and his own uncompromising sense of justice.
The Mosquito Coast – Paul Theroux
Theroux created a great character in Allie Fox. On the first page, as Allie drives along with his thirteen-year-old son (who narrates the story), he talks constantly about the awfulness of America. His emphatic opinions cover the whole spectrum of modern life. When in the town of Hatfield, he spots a woman: “Look at Tugboat Annie over there, the size of her. She’s so big that it would only take eleven of her kind to make a dozen. But that’s fat – that’s not health. That’s cheeseburgers.” He leans out the window and hollers, “That’s cheeseburgers!” That’s Allie. He often calls himself “the last man” because only he can see clearly. He talks constantly, but he’s more than talk. He can do just about anything of a practical nature: fix an engine, build a house, set up an irrigation system. He’s also an inventor, and the first invention we learn about is something he calls the Worm Tub; it can make ice without electricity. Because he’s convinced that the so-called “civilized” world is headed for extinction, he decides to take his family (wife, two boys, twin girls) to some wild outpost where he can build his own civilization from scratch. And so we wind up in Honduras. For a good stretch I found this interesting, though some nagging doubts began to surface. The rapid transformation of a raw piece of jungle into a smoothly-functioning community with all the amenities (including flush toilets) didn’t hold up to scrutiny. Allie builds a huge version of the Worm Tub, called Big Boy, and too much importance is assigned to this contraption. As disasters piled up and a murky, apocalyptic tone set in, I began to wish that the book had been a hundred pages shorter and that we had never left Hatfield. I got tired of Allie’s growing insanity, I got tired of jungles, I got tired of people talking in patois: “It were puppysho. Them people jump everyways and we ain’t get a dum bit of peace.” My disaffection was capped off by a melodramatic ending (gunplay, a getaway car). Allie had always detested and feared vultures – “Scavengers!” – but the last we see of him a vulture is ripping out his tongue. I had come to dislike the man, but obviously not as much as the author did. Theroux is a good writer who lacks good judgment; this includes the restraint to know when enough is enough. As a result that which started out so well winds up getting buried in puppyshoo.
Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It – Maile Meloy
I checked this collection from the library because its lead off story was one I had liked when I read it in The New Yorker. But “Travis, B.” turned out to be the only good piece in the collection. The loneliness of the main character came across; his need for love from someone who has nothing to give him was sad; at the end he looks at her telephone number he had jotted down, then “he did what he knew he should do, and rolled it in a ball, and threw it away.” Though the tone is muted, we get inside Chet, and so we care about his predicament and his feelings. Meloy deals mostly in understatement and small events, but this works only when an undercurrent of some emotion emerges. Except for that one story, this doesn’t happen. Here’s a sampling of the comments I jotted down after finishing the others: “Goes nowhere,” “No kick,” “I don’t care about these people,” “Inconclusive,” “Pointless.” In “The Girlfriend” she amps up the level of intensity, but gaping holes in logic render the whole thing silly. With three stories unread, I decided to give “Nine” a last chance. (BTW, I think that Meloy needs to hire a title coach.) It’s told from the point of view of a young girl observing her divorced mother’s relationship with her “new lover.” He seems OK; he has a son the girl likes; the mother and boyfriend have some undefined problems; they separate; while mother and daughter are gone the man breaks into their house to retrieve a necklace and some photographs; he also destroys her vegetable garden. In this synopsis of events I haven’t left much out; you don’t need to read the story to get more because there’s not much more there. Meloy is, of course, a MFA product (she dedicates the book to Geoffrey Wolff, her teacher and mentor at UC Irvine; before Wolff she studied under Richard Ford at Harvard). She gets encouragement – fistfuls of awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship – so she will write on. According to the Boston Globe she “may be the first great realist of the twenty-first century.” I find those words ominous. Going back to “Travis, B.,” part of the reason I originally liked it was due to shock: I had actually found a good story on the pages of The New Yorker. Imagine that!