June of 1944, which began with D-Day in Normandy and the beginnings of the Allied push toward Berlin, also began a season of terror and tragedy in North America. In the heat of that summer, a series of polio epidemics swept through towns and cities, paralyzing and killing victims, often children, and paralyzing communities with panic.
It is this terror that forms the backdrop for Philip Roth's acutely titled Nemesis. Dealing with events and attitudes of almost 70 years ago, it can be considered historical fiction, but - as often with Roth - those distant attitudes, the fear of a terrible, predatory danger lurking, along with flailing, desperate government and private responses, resonate powerfully today.
The mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Roth writes, became convinced that houseflies were spreading the disease, and ordered extra fly swatters to be delivered to all households. One set of families in the Jewish neighbourhood where the primary action of the novel unfolds, take note that a child became ill after having a hot dog at a local diner - and stridently demand the diner be shut down. Fear rules.
Roth remains astonishingly prolific in his eighth decade. His fictions are shorter, focused, pared down. Nemesis is an exceptional work, the historical context adding weight, shifting the tone from what felt to be a reworking of old themes in his last book, The Humbling. Indeed, just as how the Korean War loomed over America, framed Indignation, two novels back, gave it power and resonance, the historical context of the 1944 polio epidemic does the same for Nemesis.
The protagonist is Bucky Cantor, a young man working as summer playground director. Bucky is earnest, conscientious, proud of his physical fitness, and painfully ashamed that weak eyes have kept him out of the army when his friends are fighting (and perhaps dying) overseas. His shame and guilt play a role in the story: They are, in fact, a personal nemesis, for which Roth's choice of title offers a foreshadowing.
Polio strikes first in the Italian district leading to smug observations elsewhere about how they live, but then hits hard in other areas, including, and viciously, the Jewish neighbourhood where Bucky tries to keep his playground both active and safe amid the blistering heat wave and increasing losses to the disease (including the deaths of two children from his group). Roth is exceptionally strong in portraying parental fear and helplessness, the floundering, panicked attempts to do something, anything, that might protect their children.
Bucky's girlfriend is working at a summer camp in cooler, safer air by a lake. When an opening for another counsellor emerges, because someone has been drafted to the war, she passionately urges Bucky to come up and be safe with her and the children there, away from the steaming sidewalks and terror of Newark.
Bucky's personal story plays out as a battle between duty, terror and love. Roth uses a detached, almost flat style, and a reason for this emerges partway through as we learn who is actually telling Bucky's story and that of Newark in 1944. Roth has used this device before: an unexpected narrative voice, its revelation midway in the book. In Nemesis, the technique allows him some concluding conversations and observations, but it might be said that these feel a little pat, wrapping the tale tidily, explaining the novel's tone, but not necessarily deepening or adding its impact.
That impact, however, is considerable. Roth has the ability to work close to his characters ( Everyman, Exit Ghost, Sabbath's Theater) and to address larger cultural and historical themes ( American Pastoral). Nemesis falls into the latter category, although with a major writer the boundaries will always blur. The reader does not readily shake free of the sense of savage heat in Newark that summer and the terror of the untreatable child-killing disease that came with it. Passages that describe the summer camp by the lake, the euphoria induced by greenery, laughing children, blue water, a breeze, are powerful: descriptive writing subverted brilliantly by our awareness of historical tragedy - and by the always-hovering title of the book.
Nemesis is a novel, ultimately, about fear, how it shapes us, and it succeeds, in a brisk, efficient fashion, in bringing that home to today, by evoking yesterday. The book is no parable - one imagines Roth bristling if someone alleged it to be - but it is very surely animated by an intelligent, clear-eyed awareness that the past has, endlessly, lessons for the present.
Guy Gavriel Kay's most recent novel is Under Heaven.
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