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The Eerie Familiarities of “Nemesis,” Philip Roth’s Novel of a Polio Epidemic


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The Eerie Familiarities of “Nemesis,” Philip Roth’s Novel of a Polio Epidemic

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Philip Roth’s novel “Nemesis,” set in a fictionalized Newark, New Jersey, in 1944, brings back the fear of polio.Photograph by George Konig / Getty

Philip Roth’s last novel, “Nemesis,” from 2010, tells the story of a twenty-three-year-old gym teacher, Bucky Cantor, in Newark, New Jersey, in the summer of 1944. He is working as a playground director for boys, guiding them through their daily baseball games in the park, when the city is hit with an epidemic of polio. Many young American men are overseas fighting in the Second World War, but Bucky—who volunteered for military service—was rejected, because of his bad eyesight, which requires him to wear thick glasses. (His two best friends, who volunteered with him, have just come through the D Day invasion unharmed.) Bucky is a quasi-orphan: his mother died giving birth to him, and his father, a gambler and an embezzler, was imprisoned when Bucky (né Eugene) was a baby and then vanished from his life. Bucky was raised by his loving maternal grandparents but, throughout the novel, the absence of his mother, of a mother, reverberates like a primordial and irreparable trauma. Bucky is thrown blindly from childhood to adulthood and, amid the grave challenges that the polio epidemic confronts him with, his fragile world view crumbles.

Thus unmoored, Bucky brings a terrifying religious and spiritual anguish to the medical and social crisis of polio. That’s why, when “Nemesis” came out, I took it to be Roth’s ultimate public reconciliation with, and tribute to, his own mother, and, even more, to the stereotype of the Jewish mother that he had so often satirized in his earlier work. Moreover, I took its descriptions of the polio outbreak as a fascinating, agonizing—yet distant—counterfiction, along the lines of his 2004 novel, “The Plot Against America.” (There was no polio epidemic in Newark during Roth’s childhood.) Just as that earlier novel has, in the time of Donald Trump’s Presidency, come to seem eerily prescient, it turns out that Roth’s description of the spread of polio, and the (fictitious) effect of the disease on his childhood community, similarly foretells, in many of its crucial practical details, the lines of stress that the coronavirus pandemic is revealing worldwide.

The first cases of polio, the narrator says, struck in the Ironbound section of Newark, which was then predominantly Italian; the mainly Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic, where Bucky lives, was at first spared, but the residents, alert to the news, were also wary of contagion. “We were warned not to use public toilets or public drinking fountains or to swig a drink out of someone else’s soda-pop bottle or to get a chill or to play with strangers or to borrow books from the public library or to talk on a public pay phone or to buy food from a street vendor or to eat until we had cleaned our hands thoroughly with soap and water,” the narrator says.

Roth shows how these fearful early days of the outbreak incubate ethnic prejudice and animus. While Bucky is organizing baseball games in the park, a group of tough young Italian teens show up and spit all over the sidewalks, with the declared purpose of spreading the disease to Jewish children. (“ ‘Since when is there a law against spreadin’ polio, Mr. Playground Director?’ ”) Bucky bravely stands up to them—but, in an ominous moment, challenges the ringleader, taking “one quick, angry step forward, placing him only inches from the Italian’s face.” Days later, two of the boys in Bucky’s group come down with polio, then eleven more, and the Italians are indeed blamed for it. When a local luncheonette where one of the victims ate is blamed for spreading the disease and is virtually boycotted, the counterman vituperates: “A boiled hot dog—how do you get polio from a boiled hot dog?” he said. “It’s the wop bastards that brought it around.”

As the disease spreads, and one of the Weequahic boys dies, the community is gripped by the anticipation of broader public-health measures. “What about the mail, someone else said, you don’t think it could be spread by the mail? What are you going to do, somebody retorted, suspend delivering the mail? The whole city would come to a halt. Six or seven weeks ago they would have been talking about the war news.” Then the deaths in Weequahic mount, and, as the epidemic spirals out of control in the neighborhood, it strains the resources of medical facilities—yet neighboring towns are able to come through, and the supply chain that will soon come to Newark’s aid is untroubled. (Polio outbreaks had been occurring across the country in the forties; the last epidemic in Newark was, in fact, in 1916, but authorities knew well enough to be prepared.) The narrator—whose very identity is a dramatic stroke, a spoiler—relates that Bucky:

could hear a siren in the distance. He heard sirens off and on, day
and night now . . . These were the sirens of ambulances going to get
polio victims and transport them to the hospital, sirens stridently
screaming, “Out of the way—a life is at stake!” Several city hospitals
had recently run out of iron lungs, and patients in need of them were
being taken to Belleville, Kearny, and Elizabeth until a new shipment
of the respirator tanks reached Newark.

Residents of Weequahic discuss rumors of official plans to quarantine the entire neighborhood, and their concern for the well-being of children elsewhere in the city runs up against their fears for their livelihoods. Roth’s description of their efforts to process the drastic changes in their daily life, and likely in their lives for years to come, feels as if it could have been transcribed from today’s news. On a phone call with his grandmother, the bewildered and incredulous Bucky exclaims, “But there are tens of thousands of people there, people who have jobs and have to go to work. They can’t just pen people in like that, can they?” She informs him that a de-facto blockade is already beginning: “The bus drivers on the eight and fourteen lines say they won’t drive into the Weequahic section unless they have protective masks. Some say they won’t drive in there at all.” Then, she says, broader societal shutdowns are envisioned:

“It’s in tonight’s paper. All the places where children congregate are
being shut down. I have the article in front of me. Movie theaters are
shutting down for children under sixteen. The city pool is shutting
down. The public library with all its branches is shutting down.
Pastors are shutting down Sunday schools. It’s all in the paper.
Schools might not open on schedule if things continue like this. I’ll
read you the opening line. ‘There is a possibility that the public
schools—’ ”

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