Nemesis, by Philip Roth

Reviewed by Rima Walker

In this short novel, Roth writes of the summer of 1944 in Newark about a young man, Bucky Cantor, who is a playground director in charge of a group of neighborhood children, all of whom admire him. But Bucky who has very poor eyesight is ashamed that he is not serving in WWII which has engulfed his two best friends.  Against the backdrop of a peaceful neighborhood with the war raging in the background, another horror visits Newark in Bucky’s neighborhood, right in the playground that he supervises.  The thing everyone fears and what becomes Bucky’s Nemesis is a polio epidemic, which is a “real war. . .of slaughter, ruin, waste and damnation. . . .”

Little was known then about the disease—where it came from, how it was spread, how to treat it. The epidemic devastated neighborhood after neighborhood.  People panicked, paranoia was rampant, ethnic groups such as the Italians and Jews were named as carriers. There is talk of killing cats that might be the cause, quarantining whole neighborhoods where there are outbreaks, and blaming Bucky who kept his playground groups active in the sun and heat. One mother of two paralyzed children berates him: “You let them run around like animals. . .and you wonder why they get polio! Because of you! Because of a reckless, irresponsible idiot like you!” This is Bucky’s “first direct confrontation with vile accusation and intemperate hatred, and it has unstrung him. . . . because he always conscientiously looked after the children.”

Bucky’s girlfriend Marcia works in a Poconos camp where no one thought polio could strike.  She tries to get Bucky to come work there. At first he says no, feeling loyalty to his job and to the children he supervises. As the situation worsens, Bucky questions his faith: “Doesn’t God have a conscience? Where’s His responsibility? Or does He know no limits?” Bucky sees the deaths of the neighborhood children as “lunatic cruelty” on the part of God who commits “whatever atrocious crime it pleases Him to perpetrate.” Yet, he seeks the comforting words of Marcia’s father who is like a surrogate father to him.

Abandoning his ideals for which he feels guilt, Bucky quits, only to be berated by his boss for running away.  He goes to the camp where he asks Marcia to marry him.  Her answer brings him great happiness and allows Bucky for a time to let go of his guilt over leaving Newark and his outrage with God.  Most telling is Bucky’s wish before leaving to get to the camp before he also gets polio.  But polio does break out some time after his arrival, feeding Bucky’s guilt even more: “Who brought polio here if not me?” What happens to him there should be no surprise to the reader. And what happens to him after is not revealed to us until the last forty pages of the book which take place in 1971, when Bucky meets Arnie Mesnikoff, one of the playground children stricken with polio, and the narrator of the book.  In those pages we find a very changed Bucky, and we see how lives are altered depending on the roads we travel.

This slim, powerful novel is rich in thematic ideas: fear that makes some people cowards who turn against their friends and neighbors looking for someone to blame in a crisis; decisions about loyalty and betrayal that cause great guilt; God’s role in man’s existence; and that the choices we make and the roads we choose to follow are sometimes bad ones.  Most of all, Roth writes about circumstance and destiny, and the powerlessness of all of us in dealing with them. 

As usual, Roth’s style is crisp and exact.  He can evoke memories of childhood, life in a big city, and points of history. It brought me back to the city streets and playground I hung out in as a young child.  I remember the men in my family going to war, my Aunt’s victory garden in an empty lot, and the huge parades and celebrations when the war ended. But I knew nothing of polio until I was in my teens, long after the epidemic and a close friend contracted it and could no longer walk.  And I now wonder what circumstances led her to this horrible thing in her life.  ~

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