The plot (I'll spare you the details you shouldn't know) involves morally upright Bucky Cantor, phys ed teacher and playground supervisor, living through and with the outrage of polio in the summer of 1944 in Newark. Weak eyesight has kept him from the war, and he wishes he could be a heroic man like his two friends fighting in Europe, but his life forces upon him other choices which might prove heroic. Complicating matters is his girlfriend, who wants him to join her at a summer camp a safe distance from the Newark outbreak.
The novel is short, though one problem may be that it's not short enough. Roth's narrator (who remains hidden by the narrative for a good long time, though Roth's purposes with this construction feel inconsequential or even poorly considered) is repetitious. In a short book, you don't have to keep reminding me about the girlfriend's favorite song or mention that he'd just heard it the other day, because I just read that. That's a persistent issue, as the narrator, representing Bucky's thoughts, lets play out circular arguments that simply aren't that well composed. The language is flat—except for some lovely descriptions—and made me long for the lines of powerful writers who could bring some rhetorical heft to a character's thoughts. A much tighter book would have been better. Even the third act, though relatively short, is told in such a circumlocutious way, it feels like an early draft—and, again, raises the issue of why this particular narrator is of any use.
Roth does capture an era well, and the book is full of beautiful moments, though quite a few of them get pounded into the ground. It's a sentimental book, but the sentiment clouds its seriousness, so that the questions raised don't feel like real questions. And the questioner, Bucky, seemed less real to me as the novel continued. For some reason, he remains more a set of behaviors than a real human. Kakutani, too, says that he's flat. But he's the center of the story.
I wanted to like the book, but from the reportorial opening to the overwrought middle to the not-terribly-credible blather at the end, Roth let me down. At its core, I think there's a great novella, but instead it's a meandering essay on the burden of conscience.