Jonathan Cape, £16.99, 280pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Nemesis, By Philip Roth

For some time now, Philip Roth has been tidying up his past publications page, shuffling his previous books into five main categories: Zuckerman books (novels about his novelist protagonist, Nathan Zuckerman); Roth books (novels about Philip Roth himself); Kepesh books (novels about his academic protagonist, David Kepesh); Miscellany (non-fiction-ish books about writing) and a vaguer category of "Other Books". With Nemesis, he has introduced a new category, "Nemeses: Short Novels", into which he has shuffled three books (Everyman, Indignation and The Humbling) previously placed in the "other" group.

Roth has described these as "cataclysmic" books, in which "you don't die, but everyone else does." But, revealing the arbitrariness of the distinction, he has also suggested that two other recent novels – Exit Ghost (a Zuckerman book) and The Plot Against America (a mere "other book") – would also fit this category. Adding to the confusion, Nemesis, which he describes as a short novel, is - at 280 pages - of greater length than many of his regularly-sized books.

The four Nemeses books do have thematic connections, and anyone who has read Indignation will probably guess the narrative surprise in this latest. They also have a stylistic link, often found in late works: the prose is utterly shorn of any authorial flourish. They represent a tailing-off of the stylistic brio that has marked every novel by Roth since Sabbath's Theatre reminded everyone of the scale of his talents.

Nemesis has a distinctly unpromising set-up. The bulk of the novel takes place in the summer of 1944, and concerns a sporty man, Bucky Cantor, who has become a playground director in Newark, New Jersey.

When a polio epidemic breaks out among the children, Cantor is determined, against the wishes of his girlfriend and family, to stay and protect his charges. The first two-thirds are in the most direct prose Roth has ever written.

The book reads like non-fiction, with Roth seeming to only lightly tweak history, shaping events into the vaguest of narratives, deliberately underplaying scenes and eschewing any strong sense of plot. The only incident that provides any real dramatic purpose concerns a possible reason for the outbreak, when a group of Italians show up at the playground and threaten that they are going to spread polio by spitting on the pavement.

Cantor dismisses the possibility that the epidemic starts with this event – and it's something Roth repeatedly questions – but soon afterwards children start dying. Cantor, who already suffers from guilt because he isn't serving in the army, sticks it out as long as he can, before his girlfriend insists he join her at summer camp and he cracks.

Days after he leaves, Newark begins to shut down playgrounds and Cantor is stricken with remorse. If he'd stayed longer, he wouldn't have to face the shame of running away. Worse still, there's soon an outbreak of polio at the holiday camp, and Bucky, who now suffers himself, begins to see himself as Typhoid Mary.

It's the final third of the novel which elevates this tragic story beyond a series of miserable events and back towards Roth's grand theme: the injustice of fate. What makes Roth such an important novelist is the effortless way he brings together the trivial and the profoundly serious, and nowhere is this more in evidence than his late books. Whether it's the way Simon Axler's desire to have a threesome in The Humbling is linked to the diminution of his talents, or that the student in The Dying Animal wants to show her old professor her breasts to help her prepare for a mastectomy, he always finds black comedy in the darkest subject matter.

Sex and death are linked throughout his oeuvre but, unusually, it is not until the final third of Nemesis that sex truly becomes important. The perspective shifts and Roth depicts the protagonist being visited in old age by one of the playground boys who contracted polio. The boy discovers that Cantor has never recovered from the pain of his early adulthood, but what concerns him even more than the loss of his physical prowess is the memory of the girlfriend who abandoned him in his darkest moment.

As with the other protagonists of this late quartet, Bucky is a doomed man, unable to either believe in God or accept his lot. The true nemesis in all four books is the grim reaper: the one foe that cannot be beaten.

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