There are a few names in the literary world that are undisputed giants and Philip Roth is one of them. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read any of his work before. That’s a shame because his latest novel, Nemesis, published in 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is the kind of work that only a stylist confident in his craft can conceive.
The title of the novel never appears in it once, even as it covers the span of many nemeses that put a stranglehold on the American consciousness during the 1940s---World War II and the polio epidemic, to name two. Lying at the center of the story is Bucky Cantor, the twenty-three year old playground director in a small, Jewish neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. Like a lot of young men during that time, Cantor tries to sign up for duty to go to war, but is rejected because of his poor eyesight. He watches with a bit of guilt and regret as his two best friends are shipped out to the European theater. Cantor’s desire to fight is not only shaped by his upbringing (his mother having died in childbirth and his father, an embezzler, being sent to jail, Cantor was brought up by his stern but loving grandparents who taught him about honor and duty), but no doubt by the stakes which were certainly high within the Jewish community. His sense of duty also shapes how he responds to the greater threat that overwhelms his Newark home.
Cantor settles down into his job as a playground director, supervising young boys in their outdoor activities during the summer. Despite his disappointment, Cantor’s life is seemingly idealistic. He loves his job and he has a girlfriend, Marcia, whom he loves very much. Then the polio epidemic strikes in New Jersey, first in the Italian community, and suddenly Cantor’s world is thrown into disarray. When a group of young Italian toughs show up on the playground and spit onto the cement to spread the polio virus among the Jews, the entire Weequahic community is thrown into panic when afterwards two of Cantor’s boys are stricken and die. Before long, the virus spreads throughout the community and no one has the proper response to a disease whose origins are unknown. Unlike the Nazis, this nemesis cannot be seen; there is no way to fight it. Along with the weekly air raids, the sirens of ambulances spiriting young children to the hospital become a sickeningly present reality, reminding Cantor, a seemingly healthy and athletic man, of his own vulnerability.
Cantor, a simple young man given more to the sturdy lessons of his immigrant grandparents than esoteric arguments, is now caught in a spiritual crisis as he watches the young boys under his charge get sick one by one. He begins to blame God and eventually himself. When Marcia offers him the opportunity to get out of Weequahic for a job at Indian Hill, a summer camp in the Pocono Mountains where she is a counselor, he takes it, but not after some waffling on his part about leaving his boys behind. Cantor is a man wracked by guilt and it soon becomes apparent that the nemesis for which the novel implies is as much about the power of guilt as it is about war and disease.
Since the discovery of the polio vaccine in the 1950s, the memory of that epidemic has receded from the American imagination and we can all be grateful for the ingenuity of modern medicine for that. Yet it isn’t hard to imagine the paralyzing fear Americans felt during this time when the war on both fronts and the Nazi threat also preoccupied their fears. After all anyone who has lived through the pique of the AIDs epidemic during the 1980s knows what that is like. Roth confidently examines a small niche in American history with a tale as fully realized as it is intimate. He casts in stark relief the way both the polio epidemic and WWII affected individuals, families, and entire communities with the knowing details of lived experience. And I have to say that it is a pleasure to read someone who is wholly confident in his craft. His language and sentence structures are as comforting as a tight embrace and yet they wring out hard truths about the universal nature of guilt and fear.