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Book Review: Nemesis

Nemesis by Philip Roth, published in 2010, eight years before he died, has got to be one of the most subtly instructive elegiac novels written about a widespread raging disease. In this case, polio.

In Greek mythology Nemesis was the goddess of indignation and retribution, typically against pride. And yet Roth’s tale is about a young man who is just the opposite of proud.

Nemesis is set in the stifling hot summer of 1944 when polio struck this country with renewed vengeance, especially in the Northeast — this was 11 years before the Salk vaccine and 16 before the Sabin.

Roth’s fictional narrative tells the story of how the resurgent infantile paralysis virus that had crippled FDR 20 years earlier, affected one of the disease’s epicenters — a small Jewish community in Newark  N.J., and, in particular, an adored 23-year-old physical education teacher, Eugene Cantor, known as Bucky, who was working that summer as a playground supervisor. To his shame, Bucky had been exempted from the draft because of severe eye trouble, and he felt that serving his youngsters was a calling, a mission.

Bucky’s story is told by Arnie, one of the playground boys Bucky had supervised, a fact, to the reader’s surprise, that emerges only a third into the book. It’s a story Arnie learns 30 years later when he himself, a polio victim, who got off relatively lightly, bumps into Bucky and asks about what happened years ago. This framing device ensures that the spare prose, existential sentiment of the story never degenerates into first person sentimentality. It also keeps the reader at a distance — emphasising implacable fate over good intentions.

Everyone loved Bucky, a dedicated, compassionate mentor to his adolescent charges and the adored fiancé of Marcia, the daughter of the town doctor who admires him. Even though Bucky’s  mother had died in childbirth and his long-gone father had been a thief, Bucky’s  good fortune was to have grown up with loving grandparents who taught him that “a man’s every endeavor was imbued with responsibility.” Bucky will live by this creed, a virtuous young man of stern goodness, who is “taken to pieces by his times.”  Indeed, when he acquiesces in Marsha’s plea to leave hotbed Newark and come to be with her at a Pocono Mountains summer camp where it’s safe, he struggles with his conscience,  repeatedly saying no, but in a sudden moment yields.

It doesn’t go well. Polio invades the pastoral community of innocent children, and finally claims him. Did he bring it? Is he being punished for leaving his Newark charges, though by that time, every facility in town had been put on lockdown? Is God exacting revenge on him for leaving the city and bringing polio to the Poconos, as he believes? Is there a God? A God of diseased limbs, iron lungs, xenophobia, fear mongering, dead children?

Crippled, but alive, Bucky’s anguish and self-imposed guilt cause him to refuse to see a devastated Marcia ever again, or anyone from those days. “Invincible” is ironically the last word of the book as Arnie recalls seeing Bucky, now with a withered arm, in his prime expertly throwing a javelin.

Asked once in an interview what novels should be about, Roth said, “unshrinking man stunned by the life one is defenseless against.” A sobering thought from one epidemic to another.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.