Saturday, February 5, 2011

Nemesis by Philip Roth

I had to look up the definition of nemesis. I had always thought it referred to a person. Clearly in this novel by Philip Roth it refers to polio. Nemesis is set in 1944 in New Jersey. Bucky Cantor is a summer playground director who couldn’t follow his friends into the war because of his poor eyesight. He feels guilty about that and then when a polio epidemic hits the neighborhood he has to face illness and death.

He escapes to a summer camp:

“Inside was the noisy clamor of children’s voices reverberating in the spacious lodge, the racket that reminded him of how much he enjoyed being around kids and why it was he loved his work. He’d nearly forgotten what that pleasure was like during the hard weeks of watching out for a menace against which he could offer no protection. These were happy, energetic kids who were not imperiled by a cruel and invisible enemy – they could actually be shielded from mishap by an adult’s vigilant attention. Mercifully he was finished with impotently witnessing terror and death and was back in the midst of unworried children brimming with health.”

Unfortunately this quote is only halfway through the book. Polio didn’t really respect class, race or any other type of barrier.

The story reminds me how lucky we are to live in a time where children don’t get polio. At least according to the CDC there hasn’t been a case in the US since 1979. I had a grandfather with a brace due to polio. I got the idea it was off limits to ask him about it, but I wish now I had. I wonder how old he was when he got polio and what kind of treatment he had to go through. I believe my mom also mentioned a child in her class dying from polio – that must have been right around the time the vaccine came out. I will grill her more about that.

Nemesis is not as complex as some of Roth’s other work. The Human Stain is one of my top ten favorite fiction books. I also like his relatively short novel, Indignation. Nemesis is written in a similar style to Indignation, but I think the story in Nemesis is more compelling and will stick with me longer.

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