For Americans born after 1955, polio has had about as much immediate emotional impact as the Black Death, and thus it’s hard to conjure up the sense of terror that surrounded any mention of the disease barely half a century ago. In his new novel, Nemesis, Philip Roth evokes his native Newark amid a raging epidemic in 1944, focusing on one decent man’s futile struggle to understand the seemingly random way that health and sickness, life and death are dealt out to those around him.
Popular young athlete and high school physical education teacher Eugene “Bucky” Cantor has been hired to manage a playground for the summer in the city’s Jewish Weequahic section. Soon, some of the adolescent boys who spend the long summer days playing baseball there are stricken, and panic spreads in the community as parents blame the outbreak on everything from Italian toughs spitting on the sidewalk to overly vigorous physical activity.
Despairing of any hope of stemming the outbreak, Bucky flees, like Marcus Messner, the protagonist of Roth’s Indignation, to a place of apparent safety: a summer camp in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains where his fiancée works as a counselor. But any pleasure he derives from their reunion is thwarted by his realization that, in abandoning the steamy, disease-riddled streets of Newark, “what he no longer had was a conscience he could live with,” and he resolves to abandon his summertime idyll.
In Greek mythology, Nemesis was the spirit of divine retribution against those who yielded to hubris, or arrogance against the gods. Philip Roth’s well-known atheism undermines any notion that the harsh punishment inflicted on Bucky, who rails against God’s “lunatic cruelty” in striking down blameless 12-year-old boys, reflects Roth’s belief in any sort of divine judgment. Instead, he reminds us, “Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not. Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance—the tyranny of contingency—is everything.” Bucky Cantor’s failure to grasp that harsh truth, Roth suggests in this characteristically bleak but unfailingly honest story, is the flaw that delivers him to his fate.