‘Nemesis’ by Philip Roth

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 2011; 280 pages.

Reading a novel about a polio epidemic while the world is grappling with the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic might seem like an odd thing to do. Aren’t we all scared enough? But I thought that Philip Roth’s Nemesis might offer some insights into how people behave during health scares and whether there are any lessons to be learned.

Newark polio epidemic

The story is set in Newark, New Jersey during the summer of 1944. It’s a scary time — there’s a war raging in Europe and the Pacific — but closer to home there’s another threat, a contagious disease that largely targets children. It’s called polio and is known as the “summer disease” because it only appears during the warmer months.

It starts with a headache and a fever and then leads to paralysis of body and limbs. In severe cases, patients are put in “iron lungs” — a mechanical respirator which enables a person to breathe on their own — for months at a time. Survivors can end up in wheelchairs or have to wear calipers to support withered limbs. Many die. There is no known cure.

The story is framed around 23-year-old Bucky Cantor whose poor eyesight means he hasn’t been able to enlist in the Army. His thoughts are never far away from the battlefield: two of his best friends signed up and are fighting somewhere in France. Bucky finds a good job as the director of a playground, in a Jewish part of town, where he teaches his young charges physical education and supervises their games.

He is well-liked and popular; never more so than when he stands up to a group of Italian teenagers who arrive in two cars to “spread polio” one sunny afternoon. “We got it and you don’t, so we thought we’d drive up and spread a little around,” says one of the guys, who then proceeds to spit all over the sidewalk.

Several days later two of Bucky’s students come down with polio; both eventually die. There is no proof the Italians spread the disease (after they spat on the sidewalk, Bucky washed it all down) but no one really knows how the contagion is passed on. Is it via human contact? Maybe it’s from food? Or is it the water? Why are some neighbourhoods more badly affected than others? So little is known that rumours and conspiracies abound. People want the playground shut down, the Italian gang to be lynched, the local hotdog vendor to close, entire apartment blocks to be quarantined.

Bewilderment and fear

Bucky begins to feel the weight of people’s grief and fears, their panic and bewilderment, their pain and outrage. People on the street mistake him for a Health Department official and yell their fury at him. He is devoted to the playground, at keeping it open and providing a safe place for boys to play, but he’s fearful of who might fall sick next. He begins to feel guilty that maybe he didn’t do enough to stop two of his charges from dying.

His girlfriend, a first grade teacher working at a summer camp in the hills, offers him a reprieve. There’s an opening at the camp for a waterfront director and Bucky, an accomplished diver and swimmer, would be ideal for the job. He prevaricates for a week or two — he needs to stay in the city to keep an eye on the grandmother who raised him — but eventually succumbs to the idea of fresh air and a fresh start.

The second half of the book charts Bucky’s time at the India Hill camp and his romance with Marcia. But when a fellow camp instructor falls ill, Bucky can’t help but think he brought the poliovirus with him. How many children has he now put at risk? How many parents will suffer the loss of a loved one?

Surviving a contagion 

Nemesis is a gripping account of an epidemic from another time and place seen through the eyes of one man.

It’s eloquently written in Roth’s typical forthright style and is told in the third-person. But midway through we discover it is being told through the eyes of one of Bucky’s former students looking back on the summer of 1944. The narrator, it turns out, caught polio but survived. It’s an unusual device, and perhaps not entirely necessary, but it does show that the disease was not always a death sentence.

This novel also shows how rumour and fear can spread almost as fast, if not faster, than the contagion itself, and looks at the responsibility that we all hold to behave with the good of others in mind. Washing your hands and the need for quarantine are frequently mentioned. Yes, I think there might be lessons in this book for us all.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers has also reviewed this book, but it first attracted my attention when the late KevinfromCanada reviewed it on his blog back in 2010.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London: This story is set in a children’s convalescent home in Perth, Western Australia during a polio outbreak in 1954.

This is my 9th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. The press release tucked into the cover of this book indicates that it was sent to me unsolicited in October 2011. I was obviously interested in reading it because it survived dozens of book culls over the years and was packed in my suitcase when I moved back to Australia in June last year. It may possibly be the oldest book I own here.

17 thoughts on “‘Nemesis’ by Philip Roth

  1. One boy in my grade 3 in Leongatha had polio. He had a wheelchair to get around in and a big wooden desk like a throne to sit in and support him during lessons. His dad owned a shop I think, I wonder if it was Williams the snowman. There was a vaccine by then (1959) and I think the scare had passed, though TB was still a real threat. I think I was vaccinated for that a few years later, in high school.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s hard to believe that the disease was such a worry only a generation or two ago given that it’s now practically wiped out… though I assume all those anti-vaxxers mean it might flare up again? Despite being vaccinated as a child (I still remember the little cherry-flavoured drops we took), I had a polio booster in 2010 prior to a trip to China, because my doctor told me it polio was still a problem there…

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  2. I love Roth and I’m very interested in reading this. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Roth is the kind of writer to dissect the impact of an epidemic on people’s behavior.

    Here, copies of The Plague were selling well until recently. (bookshops are closed, even some online ones)

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    • It’s a relatively quick and easy read, Cathy. I read it in two sittings — it’s 280 well spaced pages long — and the story is gripping enough to make it a real pageturner.

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  3. This has only been on my radar for a few weeks (ever since I wrote a book plague post) and now your review!
    The first time I learnt about polio in Aust was thanks to Cop Shop when mum had to explain to me about why the daughter with polio was secreted away.

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    • Cop Shop – that’s a blast from the past! My parents wouldn’t let me watch that. (I wasn’t allowed to watch Prisoner either)

      As to Nemesis, do see if you can find a copy for a read… it’s very entertaining and can easily be read in a couple of sittings or one longish one.

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      • My parents didn’t watch Prisoner, so it wasn’t on even my radar! Cop Shop started the year I began high school & I was allowed to stay up later than my sisters for the first time. My reward – Cop Shop😂

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          • We got television when I was 16 and only watched ABC – Z Cars, Bellbird, and of course The Avengers (Emma Peel ver.). A decade or so later I imposed the same rules on my family, but got home late from work one night to find everyone guiltily/defiantly watching A Country Practice and that was the thin edge of the wedge. Within a few years I was sitting with them watching Simpsons, Roseanne and all the rest.

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  4. I’ve read of this before but had rather forgotten it. It does sound particularly timely right now, and I’ve still not read any Philip Roth (though I have his The Ghost Writer).

    Count me as another who misses Kevin.

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    • It’s a good one to start with, Max. I found it very easy to read and it has that cool detached voice I associate with so many American male novelists (Yates, Salter etc), which I quite like.

      Yes, Kevin is much missed. I often wonder what he would think of my career change after he provided so much email therapy/support about getting out of journalism circa 2010/11.

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  5. Pingback: ‘The Butchers’ by Ruth Gilligan – Reading Matters

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