Book Review: Nemesis, by Philip Roth


Philip Roth's novel an excellent addition to distinguished career

By Sigrid Macdonald
Ottawa, Canada
Sigrid Macdonald is author of Be Your Own Editor and is available at 
Nemesis, by Philip Roth
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: HAMISH HAMILTON CA (Oct 12 2010)
ISBN-10: 0670064017
ISBN-13: 978-0670064014
Summer should be a happy time for children who’ve been cooped up in crowded schoolhouses all year: a time for freedom, recreation, jubilation. Instead, the summer of 1944 was a time of fear and dread for the kids in Newark, New Jersey, thanks to the sweeping polio epidemic. In his new book, Nemesis, the prolific and distinguished Philip Roth creates an emotionally powerful tale, rife with interesting historical facts, philosophical questions and ethical dilemmas.

Eugene "Bucky" Cantor is a 23-year-old weightlifter. Despite his stellar physical condition, Bucky is rejected by the armed services because of his poor vision. He requires thick glasses even to find his way around his bedroom, thus, he watches his best friends go off to war and is left behind in Weequahic, the Jewish section of southwestern Newark where Roth grew up. To overcome his feelings of failure, Bucky becomes a playground instructor and vows to create an atmosphere of happiness and physical well-being for his prepubescent and teenage wards.
But a deadly virus is sweeping the city -- a disease so powerful that it paralyzes people, renders them incapable of breathing so they need to be put on iron lungs, and kills others. The disease is polio, and while his friends fight in Korea, Bucky is engaged in his own battle at home. One by one kids under his supervision are stricken with headaches, fever, and the inability to move their limbs. Some die as he watches helplessly.


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Bucky's fiancée urges him to leave the inner city for the sanctuary of the country. The Poconos beckon: crisp mountain air, evenings filled with tall drinks of lemonade and telling stories around the campfire. Strong and healthy 14-year-olds diving into man-made lakes, emerging fit and triumphant as they should. However, even the Poconos isn't safe. As Roth's protagonist says, "Some people are lucky and others are not."
Roth poses the age-old question of how lives are shaped by both circumstance and moral choices, and as always, he does a wonderful job of answering. Through arguments with his girlfriend and internal dialogue, Bucky explores the religious question of why bad things happen to good people. Bucky rants against God and blames Him for injuring and killing innocent children. And, always the Zionist, Roth manages to relay the Jewish side of the story -- how Jews in Newark were believed to be dirty, and more likely to be carriers of the then mysterious illness.
Nemesis reminds us that so often when people go back in time, they tend to romanticize the old days, and portray the Norman Rockwell view of life (which even Rockwell rejected, being a chronic depressive who was quoted as saying that he always painted his pictures of life the way he wanted it to be, not the way it really was). Not so for Roth. He has always been able to tell it like it is and has succeeded in writing a book that is at once an engaging story, as well as a provocative and philosophical piece, and a warning to those of us who believe that we are immune today from such happenings.
When I finished Nemesis, I couldn't help but think about all the parents in the U.S., supported by Oprah and celebrity Jenny McCarthy, who have joined the anti-immunization bandwagon believing that the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine causes autism. Although mercury was removed from the MMR vaccine in 2001, cases of autism have continued to rise. There is no scientific evidence that mercury or vaccines are linked to autism or childhood developmental delays, but the fear of vaccinations continues to spread, as polio once did. So it's no surprise that we now have cases of whooping cough and measles.
For vaccines to work, we need something called herd immunity. That means that if 95% of the population gets a vaccine for measles, it will be hard for that disease to spread because you can't get it from your next-door neighbor, your colleague, or your children's playmates. But if only 50% of the population gets the measles vaccine, according to Scientific American, not only are the people who don't get the vaccine at risk, but also the people who do get the vaccine are at risk because it’s not 100% effective. We need the whole group to get it in order for it to work well. After reading Nemesis, which takes place a mere eleven years before the advent of the polio vaccine,it's hard to imagine that any parent would want to put a child in danger of contracting a condition we are so capable of eradicating.
Best known for Portnoy's Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus, Former Princeton Professor of Literature Roth won the PEN/Faulkner Award three times, as well as a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel, American Pastoral. His engaging story about a black man who posed as a white man and was charged with racism, The Human Stain, was made into a movie. Nemesis stands up straight in this long collection of excellent Roth books.

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