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.
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.