Separating fact from fiction in Philip Roth’s latest novel

Separating fact from fiction in Philip Roth’s latest novel

Character shares name, occupation with figure from Newark’s past

Weequahic High School football coach Bucky Harris, right, coaches three varsity football players in the art of blocking in 1949 — from left, Jerry Safier, Sandy Goldberg, and Herb Akelaitis. Photo courtesy Sandy Goldberg
Weequahic High School football coach Bucky Harris, right, coaches three varsity football players in the art of blocking in 1949 — from left, Jerry Safier, Sandy Goldberg, and Herb Akelaitis. Photo courtesy Sandy Goldberg

When Linda Forgosh read a review of Philip Roth’s latest novel, Nemesis, something caught her attention.

“I saw the name Bucky Cantor, and I knew it was Roth’s mode of operation to take somebody from his Newark neighborhood and recreate a story around him, whether right or wrong.”

In the novel, Roth’s protagonist is a gym teacher at the Chancellor Avenue School, Roth’s alma mater, and its playground director during the summer.

Forgosh, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest, recalled that a man named Bucky Harris was a gym teacher and playground director known by hundreds of kids who grew up in the Weequahic neighborhood.

Forgosh sent Roth — a dues-paying member of JHS — a letter asking whether Bucky Cantor was based on Bucky Harris. She enclosed a photograph of Harris, football in hand, coaching three young athletes in blocking techniques.

The author responded promptly.

“No, this isn’t modeled on the Bucky Harris who supervised the Chancellor playground and coached at Weequahic High,” Roth wrote. “I do remember him playing ball with us on the playground one summer. I also remember him at Weequahic, when I vaguely recall him substitute teaching our history class.

“I gave my twenty-three-year old Eugene Cantor the nickname ‘Bucky’ because its associations to manliness were savagely ironic for a boy who winds up the way Bucky does. His every word and action is my invention,” Roth wrote.

Every Philip Roth novel sets off a flurry of speculation about the “truth” behind the fiction. Invariably, Roth replies by carefully asserting that he writes novels, not autobiography.

Yet for those who grew up in Jewish Newark, or share other memories with the now 77-year-old New Jersey native, the impulse to match fact and fiction is hard to resist.

For example, Bucky Cantor is not the first Roth character to share a nickname with a real-life person from his old Newark neighborhood.

“He did that with Swede Levov in 1997’s American Pastoral, who he did base on a real person, Swede Masin,” Forgosh pointed out.

Like the real-life “Swede,” who earned his nickname for his blond good looks, the fictional Swede is a star athlete at Weequahic High in the 1940s.

Unlike Masin, the Roth character faces Job-like trials as the father of a 1960s radical who kills a bystander in a bomb attack.

To this day, long-time residents of Short Hills claim to know the real-life identities of the Patimkins, the nouveau riche family whose daughter dates the protagonist in Roth’s debut novella, Goodbye Columbus.

In Nemesis, the character called Bucky Cantor is a playground director whose poor eyesight keeps him from military service in World War II. A guilt-ridden Cantor wages his own battle against a polio epidemic that is rampant in his largely Jewish neighborhood.

Sandy Goldberg, an insurance agent in Livingston who attended both Chancellor Avenue School and high school with Roth and said he has read “just about all” of Roth’s books, thinks Bucky Cantor shares more than his nickname with the real-life Bucky Harris.

“In the book, Roth talks about Bucky being the playground director, and Bucky Harris was involved all over,” said Goldberg.

(Goldberg cherishes his eighth-grade autograph album, in which Roth wrote, “Don’t suck lollipops, suck-cess.” Goldberg said he “laughed at the time” he saw the inscription. “Of course, Philip wasn’t famous or infamous at the time,” he added.)

Louis “Bucky” Harris was also a star football and baseball player for Newark Central High School who went on to play at Seton Hall University in South Orange and at Upsala College in East Orange. After his graduation in 1935, Harris became the football coach at West Side High School, leading his team to a Newark City League Championship in 1943.

He also served as head coach for Weequahic High and later became the recreation director of Chancellor Avenue Playground.

In 2007 he was inducted into the JCC MetroWest Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

‘Imagining a menace’

Roth also takes artistic liberties with the polio epidemic at the center of Nemesis. As he has pointed out in various interviews, there was no polio outbreak in Newark in 1944, when the novel is set. Roth told NPR that the outbreak was “fictionalized but plausible.”

“In a way I was imagining a menace we never encountered in all its force,” he told radio host Robert Siegel. “I wanted to imagine what it would have been like, in our neighborhood, had the menace struck.”

In fact, two very real outbreaks of polio struck Newark, and many other places in America, in the 20th century.

The first came in 1916, when 26 states reported 27,000 cases of polio, with some 6,000 of them fatal. Fewer than 2,000 Newark children contracted the infection.

The primary victims were Russians, Poles, and Polish Jews “in the most congested part of the city,” wrote Alan and Deborah Kraut in their book Covenant of Care: Newark Beth Israel and the Jewish Hospital in America.

A second epidemic hit its peak in 1952, killing 3,145 of its 58,000 young victims.

“In terms of why he made up the year 1944, I haven’t got a clue, but it sounds like he needed the polio outbreak to be during World War II,” said Alan Kraut, a history professor at American University in Washington, DC.

“That’s what historical novels do,” said Kraut, who said he was in the process of reading Nemesis. “Roth is a novelist, not a historian. He is a very honest person, a very honest intellectual, and he’s a novelist. He is entitled to play with the facts any which way he wants to. Only a fool would try to learn history from something that is so obviously a piece of fiction. He’s aiming at truth about the human condition.”

Undeniably real is the fear of polio captured in Roth’s novel. According to Covenant of Care, in the summer of 1916 guards were placed at quarantined homes, public libraries banned children, and the Harry Lukens Wild Animal Show was ordered out of town. Newark declared war on houseflies — a detail Roth borrows for his book.

Forgosh said she is always ready to distinguish between the Newark of history and the Newark of Roth’s art.

“You can read the fictionalized accounts of the lives of Newark’s Jews in Roth’s books,” she said. “But you can get the facts from us.”

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