Pulitzer Prize winning author Philip Roth takes the subject of the Polio epidemics of the1940s as the background to his latest novel “Nemesis”. Like many of Roth’s novels, it’s set in the mainly Jewish Weequahic neighborhood of this his hometown of Newark, New Jersey in the 1940s.
It’s 1944and America is at war. Bucky Cantor is a twenty-three year old PE teacher and an accomplished athlete. But he’s been rejected for military service because of poor eyesight, so he’s teaching PE at the local junior high school. Because it’s the summer holidays he’s running a playscheme in the city’s parks. There’s a heatwave, and he takes great care of the boys and girls to ensure that they take precautions against heatstroke. But there’s an even greater danger to their well-being that nobody understands. The city authorities don’t know what causes it, and they don’t know how to prevent it or how to treat it.
One by one the young boys he’s working with succumb to Polio. The first boy to catch it dies after just a few days. Bucky attends his funeral and talks to his parents. The family has two older sons serving with the US forces in Europe and they’re resigned to the fact that they might lose one or both of them in action, but the loss of their third son to a hidden, silent enemy is incomprehensible.
Bucky returns to the park where he’s running the playscheme. He scrubs the tarmacwith disinfectant and thoroughly cleans all the equipment. It doesn’t make any difference. New cases keep on coming.
Roth captures the atmosphere of panic and paranoia that these epidemics created at that time exactly. Parents ask who is to blame. Is it the City authorities, or is it the unclean ways of life of the Italians and coloured people who live in other parts of the city?
Bucky’s fiancée,Marcia is also a PE teacher who is working at a summer camp in rural Pennsylvania.When he gets the opportunity leave Newark to join her there he has to make a choice. Is he being useful in Newark, or should he just escape to the country and join the woman he loves? Bucky makes his choice, with disastrous consequences.
The book’s narrator always addresses Bucky respectfully as “Mr Cantor”. We learn that he’s an eleven year-old and that he’s one of the first to catch the disease. At the end of the story the narrator and Bucky meet again after thirty years. Their lives have turned out very differently.
Essentially“Nemesis” is about Bucky’s guilt about not being able to serve his country, and his moral dilemma about the decision to leave Newark. There are many other parts of the novel where the reader must make his or her own decision about Bucky’s choices, but to list more of them would give away the plot. But Roth captures the time of the Polio epidemics, and the sense of panic and helplessness that accompanied these epidemics perfectly.