By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Bucky Cantor’s not a doctor. He’s a gym teacher, declassed in summers to "playground director," little more than a recess monitor. And so he’s particularly unqualified to handle the polio epidemic ravaging Newark during the summer of ’44, the outbreak that propels Philip Roth’s horrifying, page-turning new novel Nemesis. Not that that stops him from attempting to assume singlehandedly the weight of the nightmare. As The War rages across two oceans—combat from which Bucky has been 4F’d for his poor eyesight—another tears across the Jewish-section Jersey streets at home, "war upon the children of Newark," and he’s right on the front lines, the only able-bodied (if not able-eyed) man left in town to meet it. But, as Roth writes, a "misplaced sense of responsibility can be a debilitating thing."
"The significance of polio has disappeared completely," he continues, its once-ubiquitous, pre-Salk savagery forgotten, and this short novel, at its simplest, reminds new generations of that disease’s terrifying blanket assault—so cruel and ostensibly meaningless that it inspires in Bucky a Job-like spiritual crisis ("doesn’t God have a conscience?" he wonders) with which he fails to cope, spurning G-d as he witnesses his kids from the playground picked off in the night, one by one like the cast in a Friday the 13th movie.
Fear is Nemesis’ driving emotion. Rudimentary science fans the flames of irrational hysteria—arguments erupt about which restaurants and ethnic groups are dirtiest, to discover from where the polio spreads. Neighbors turn against neighbors, begetting mistrust, scapegoating of the powerless, and violence. The streets of Newark start to look like those of contemporary Berlin in their mounting racial frenzy—the calls for effectively ghettoizing Newark's Jews illustrate how easily America could devolve into Nazi Germany.
This group-panic soon infects the individual. As Bucky tries to calm a hysterical Newark he becomes hysterical himself, losing the courage he wants to impart to his kids and to practice in the European Theater like his college chums. Instead, he adopts a life-preserving selfishness that's sympathetic, yet which we've been trained at the same time to identify as cowardice: he flees (akin to draft dodging!) the disease-ridden urban milieu for its antithesis—a sylvan idyll in the Poconos, where his fiancée works; where he supervises, and swims in, the cold purity of a lake; and to where polio follows him like Max Cady under the car. This summer camp becomes the PTO to Newark's ETO. The butterfly swarm that meets his arrival proves a harbinger of doom.
The characters’ reactionary rage portends Japanese internment and McCarthyism—precursors to "Ground Zero Mosque" hysteria. But the book works less as a parallel to the present or a presaging of the country's future; Roth uncovers a simple truism about America’s historical saga: that our peoples will always seek validation of their bitterness and fear in the open arms of the mob. Bucky emerges as "one of those people taken to pieces by his times," but the key to Nemesis' devastation is that there are heaps of Buckys in every generation—men whose bodies and souls are crippled by what Roth names "the tyranny of contingency".