Posted by: Jeanie F | October 15, 2010

Nemesis by Philip Roth

I hate to admit this publicly, but I am actually old enough to remember when polio posed a real threat. I had a neighbor – a boy just two or three years older than I was – who required full leg braces to walk, due to a bout with the disease. Of course, he was considered one of the lucky ones because he survived. We were forbidden to swim in the public swimming pool in our neighborhood park – and during the hot Texas summer, this was a hardship. No drinking from public water fountains, no over-exertion, major paranoia over flies landing on food. The vaccine was finally developed and declared safe in 1955, but it was much later (I believe 1960) before it became readily available. I remember the novelty of receiving a vaccine by way of a sugar cube saturated with the medicine.

This personal history with polio made me very interested in Philip Roth’s latest novel, Nemesis, the story of a fictionalized polio outbreak in Newark, New Jersey in 1944 (and no, I’m NOT old enough to remember 1944!). Following a brief explanation of the development and impact of the disease, the novel opens on a playground in  Weequahic, the Jewish section of Newark. PE coach and playground director, Eugene “Bucky” Cantor, oversees the summer activities of neighborhood children in the one section of Newark that has – initially – been spared the disease. Bucky, a young man of 23,  is popular, admired by the children for both his athletic prowess and an act of heroism that occurs early in the story. However, he struggles with his own background – and lives by an impossibly high code of ethics. It is a source of personal disappointment and shame to him that, due to poor eyesight, he is denied the opportunity to join his friends who have gone to Europe to fight in World War II.

Inevitably, the polio outbreak in Newark finds its way to Weequahic, and Bucky stands by helplessly as the playground loses children to both polio and parent concerns about what is causing it. His girlfriend, Marcia, offers him the opportunity to leave Newark for the summer and join her to work at a summer camp that seems to be an oasis from the terrible disease. The decision and its aftermath brings Bucky face to face with his own personal nemeses.

This is not a perfect novel, and I struggled with certain aspects. Roth’s writing is always clear and evocative, and Nemesis is no exception. One of the great strengths of this story was how clearly he captured the time period, and the small details he provided that puts me, as a reader, so squarely into the scene. It really was an opportunity to take a step back to a simpler, if not easier, time, when there was less ambiguity about how people were expected to live. However, in spite of a style that depends largely on exposition, Roth doesn’t actually seem to have much to say. As Susanna Sonnenberg, writing for SFGate.com about Nemesis, points out, “Lengthy, self-reflective sentences – in perfect cadences – convey complexity without actually being complex.”

 I enjoy a certain degree of cynicism or satire from Roth that wasn’t present in this novel. If anything, it was sentimental and slightly maudlin. There was also the odd decision of the narrator. Initially, the story seemed to have an omniscient narrator. About a third of the way through the narrative voice was revealed to be in first person. However, the relationship between the narrator and Bucky didn’t become clear until quite late in the story. The result is that once you know who is telling the story, you are confused about how he knows so many details. Even in the final denouement, it doesn’t seem plausible that Bucky Cantor would have shared such depth of personal information.

Ultimately, the sentimentality and strange narration were somewhat minor distractions. The biggest problem I had with this book was the redundancy – the constant reiteration of Bucky’s struggles of conscience, the replay of reactions to the disease and the fear it engendered, the reminders of the strong values he learned from his grandparents all dragged the story down. I had a sense that Roth padded this slim volume (280 pages) to make it a novel when, in fact, he had what would have been an excellent, tight short story or novella. I began this book looking forward to a personal account of how a societal scourge such as polio played out on the individual level. In the end, I was disappointed.

Grade: C


Responses

  1. Thanks for this review. I haven’t read Roth yet although I have one of his other novels on my list but the time period and the Polio theme appeals to me greatly so I’m adding this.

  2. He’s a great writer – usually one of my favorites. I hope you like him!

  3. I’ve only read one book by Roth, which I loved (The Plot Against America). Have a couple of his other books on the infamous tbr (I Married A Communist and The Human Stain).

    Thanks for the review on this one – to be honest, didn’t have an inkling as to what the plot was about. Now I know 🙂


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