For those who weren’t there, polio wasn’t just having your mother say “don’t go to the swimming pool” or “be careful of anyone who coughs”; the experience was very much one of the world suddenly changing without warning. A best friend at Sunday School was, the next Sunday, no longer there — Luke had contracted “polio” and was in an “iron lung” and not at school and if he survived he would probably never walk again. When you are six years old, that is a bit of a shock. Welcome to the real world, Kevin. I don’t think there is any modern comparison (thankfully). This was a disease that stalked children (well, adults too, but we didn’t know that) and nobody knew how it happened or what could be done to stop it.
Philip Roth’s Nemesis is set a decade or so ahead of my experience, in Newark, New Jersey in 1944, but it vividly brought to my mind my own childhood. There is a war going on (actually two, considering both the European and Pacific fronts), but in Newark that summer the threat is neither the Nazis nor the Japanese, it is the epidemic that is striking the city’s children. While the global war is never absent from this short novel, the local war against whatever this polio is is what dominated concern.
Bucky Cantor is the 23-year-old playground director in the mainly Jewish area of Weequahic. His bad eyes have kept him out of the Armed Forces, despite his attempts to enlist. And as summer arrives, so does the “polio season”. You had to be there to appreciate this — summer was not just welcome warm weather, it was the paralyzing threat of polio, with all of the restrictions and threats that that involved. Weequahic has escaped things, so far. Mr. Cantor’s work (one of the attractive traits of this book is the way Roth uses different ways of naming his central character to indicate his status of the moment) has been disrupted by the arrival of two carloads of Italians from the East Side, where there have been a number of cases:
“What do you fellows want here?” Mr. Cantor said.
“We’re spreadin’ polio,” one of the Italians replied. He was the one who’d come swaggering out of the cars first. “Ain’t that right?” he said, turning to preen for the cohorts backing him up, who appeared right off to Mr. Cantor to be only too eager to begin a brawl.
“You look more like you’re spreading trouble,” Mr. Cantor told him. “Why don’t you head out of here?”
“No, no,” the Italian guy insisted, “not till we spread some polio. We got it and you don’t, so we thought we’d drive up and spread a little around.” All the while he talked, he rocked back and forth on his heels to indicate how tough he was. The brazen ease of his thumbs tucked into the front two loops of his trousers served no less than his gaze to register his contempt.
“I’m playground director here,” Mr. Cantor said, pointing back over his shoulder towards us kids. “I’m asking you to leave the vicinity of the playground. You’ve got no business here and I’m asking you politely to go. What do you say?”
“Since when is there a law against spreadin’ polio, Mr. Playground Director?”
“Look, polio is not a joke. And there’s a law against being a public nuisance. I don’t want to have to call the police. How about leaving on your own, before I get the cops to escort you out of here?”
My apologies for the length of that excerpt, but it speaks to the amazing eloquence of the entire novel. That exchange, read in 2010, seems ludicrous — let me assure you, in the times where the novel is set, it is a portrayal of high realism. And it is only one of dozens that I could pull from this amazing novel.
The first case of polio soon strikes in Weequahic. Was it the Italians who visited the playground? Is it the highly-polluted air of the neighborhood? Or perhaps the hot dog shop where a number of the victims had eaten? Or the lack of quarantine of effected houses? Maybe all the kids getting together — and sweating — at the playground? No one knows, but everyone has an opinion. Nothing is beyond suspicion.
Roth introduces all those possiblities in the first half of the novel and every single one of them brought back memories. Can you imagine, as a six or seven year old, what it is like to know that there is a life-threatening demon lurking out there and you have absolutely no idea what form it might take or how it might “get” you? Roth is a master of language and of controlling emotion and he builds this scenario with incredible skill — I felt like he had been there in my childhood, even though what he was describing was a decade earlier and a thousand miles away.
As Playground Director, Bucky is both concerned and guilted when a number of his charges are struck by the disease, a couple fatally. Surely there was something he could, or should, have done? He attends their funerals and the guilt that is laid on him there only makes things worse — is he part of the problem? The number of his charges is steadily shrinking as parents keep their children at home — but he still wonders just what his responsibility was, or is.
Which is where Roth takes this novel in a different direction at the halfway point and turns it into a more traditional work (and does that very well, I must say). Bucky has a girl friend, Marcia, a fellow teacher in his school-year job at the grade school. She is the daughter of a doctor and comes from a family much better connected than Bucky’s grandparents who have raised him. Marcia has a job at a summer camp — Indian Hill — in the Poconos in nearby Pennsylvania. The waterfront director has just been drafted and there is an opening which is perfectly suited for Bucky. The job has a lot of attractions, not the least being the idea that isolated, fresh air locations like the Poconos are supposedly polio-free. Oh, and there is also an island where he and Marcia would have some privacy.
It is at this point that Nemesis became, for me, more a novel than a reminder of childhood — and Roth made the transition perfectly. Bucky does go to Indian Hill and the novel enters a whole new dimension. He has a wonderful time, but is plagued by guilt throughout. And yes (SPOILER) he does contract polio while he is there, setting up the kind of conclusion that readers expect from a writer as talented as Philip Roth.
A number of readers whom I respect regard Roth as the best of living American authors — I can’t disagree, but I am less entranced than they are with his major works. On the other hand, I would say that Nemeses, the collected title he has designated for his latest four works (of which this novel is the last), represents an exceptional author at his very best. For me, the short novel (all of these four can be easily read in one sitting) draws out the best of Roth — and leaves him no room for what he is not good at. The four novels — Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis — are all exceptional, a writer at the very top of his game.
There is no doubt that my personal experience has colored my opinion of this book and I do not apologize for that. Indeed, for those of you who are not yet in your 60s, you need to read this to understand what those of us who are went through as children. I do feel indebted to an author who has brought back memories of my childhood so forcefully and effectively. And, for those who have disputed my previous concerns about Roth, I must admit I will be going back to his previous work for a reread with a whole new attitude. I think I might have missed something the first time around.