Philip Roth’s “Nemesis:” a lesson for today

James L. Franklin
Chicago, Illinois, United States

 

A young girl suffering from polio, seated in a wheelchair pushed by a woman
Polio patient in a wheelchair. Images like this were used to encourage individuals to receive polio vaccinations, which were made available in April, 1955. CDC Public Health Library. Source

As we grapple with the impact of the current pandemic caused by the coronavirus, Covid–19, we may wish to seek understanding in works of non-fiction such as The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John M. Barry or the writings of authors from the past, for example, Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year or Samuel Pepys’ Diary for a picture of London in the years 1665 and 1666. In works of fiction the author’s intent may be tangential to presenting a realistic account of an epidemic. The Plague by Albert Camus (1947) is often interpreted as an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France, yet the author captures the attitudes prevalent in the community in the face of an existential threat.

Nemesis, Philip Roth’s last novel from 2010, is set in a Jewish section of Newark, New Jersey, Weequahic, during the summer of 1944. The novel chronicles a polio outbreak in Newark that begins shortly after Memorial Day, swelling to forty cases by the Fourth of July. The account is fictional; Newark had last experienced a major epidemic of polio in 1916 when there had been 1,360 cases and 363 deaths. That same year the northeastern United States reported over 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths. Newark did not experience another major outbreak until 1952, but throughout these years cases would flare up annually across the United States.

Roth’s narrator introduces us to Eugene (Bucky) Cantor, whose life story and psychological dynamics are the main focus of the novel. Mr. Cantor is twenty-three years old and is the newly appointed physical education teacher at the Chancellor Avenue School and summer playground director. He is a highly accomplished athlete, dedicated to helping the young men under his care develop their athletic ability and personal self-confidence. He carries a burden of guilt because his mother died as a consequence of his birth and shame over a father who was convicted of embezzlement in a downtown department store where he worked and was sentenced to prison. The father disappeared from his life during infancy. Bucky was raised by his maternal grandparents. Happily, his grandfather, who gave him his nickname Bucky, shaped his character and inspired him to strive for excellence. In 1944, his grandfather now deceased, Bucky lives in very humble circumstances with his grandmother who has cared for and loved him as her own son. He, in kind, is dedicated to caring for her as she ages. Following Pearl Harbor, he and his two best friends went to enlist but he was rejected as 4F because of his poor vision, adding further to his feelings of guilt.

Several of the boys under his supervision develop polio and two die. Mr. Cantor pays a condolence call to the family of one of the boys. We hear the grieving father question how could this happen to his wonderful son and the anguish he feels that his son died alone in the hospital isolated from the comfort of his family. His words echo those of families today who have lost a loved one, isolated and alone in an intensive care unit to the Covid–19 virus.

There is a bright spot. He has a girl, Marcia, a fellow teacher currently away from Newark at a summer camp where she is working as a counselor. They are in love and her father, a general practitioner, heartily approves his request to marry his daughter. Marcia calls Bucky from the camp to tell him that a position as waterfront director has become available at the camp. Marcia, fearing for his safety in the face of the polio epidemic, persuades him to accept the position and abandon his job as playground director. Polio follows him to the camp when a fellow counselor suffers a severe attack of polio. Bucky, believing he may be the source of the infection, persuades the camp physician to test him and submits to a spinal tap. Bucky is found to be infected and soon suffers a severe attack of paralysis himself. Several other campers fall ill and the camp is closed.

Through the identity of a surprise narrator, the novel chronicles the course of his illness and treatment thirty years into the future. Bucky Cantor relates in painful detail his rejection of Marcia’s love and why he could not allow his fiancée to sacrifice her life as his wife. We learn about his convalescence at a Sister Kenny Institute in Philadelphia and the physical therapy he receives. He emerges from his illness severely handicapped; one arm is withered and he is barely able to walk with braces. His bills, which were astronomical, were paid for by the Sister Kenny Institute and the March of Dimes.

Roth acknowledges his sources of information about polio in the book. They include; Dirt and Disease by Naomi Rogers (1992), Polio’s Legacy by Edmund Sass (1996), A Paralyzing Fear by Nina Gilden Seavy, Jane S. Smith, and Paul Wagner (1998), and Polio Voices by Julie Silver and Daniel Wilson (2007). He provides a credible account of the symptoms and illness experienced by his characters.

The fears experienced in the community and the public health measures taken by the city parallel what we are experiencing during the 2020 Covid–19 pandemic. “Since nobody then knew the source of the contagion, it was possible to grow suspicious of almost anything.” Children were prohibited from using the public swimming pool, going to the air-conditioned movie theaters, going to the baseball stadium, borrowing books from the library, sharing a soda with a friend, and buying food from street vendors. Those who could afford to, sent their children out of the city to camps or to the Jersey Shore. While at camp, he receives a call from his grandmother informing him that because of a cluster of cases in the Weequahic section of Newark, the city is thinking of quarantining the area and bus drivers are refusing to enter Weequahic unless they have protective masks. Mailmen do not want to deliver mail and truck drivers do not want to deliver supplies.

The identity of the narrator is revealed when he enters the story in 1971; he is one of the boys from the Chancellor Avenue playground who in the summer of 1944 contracted polio. The narrator, less severely afflicted than Mr. Cantor, has through a difficult course of physical therapy been able to go to college and to architectural school as well as marry and have a family. The narrator has started a company that specializes in architectural modifications for wheelchair accessibility. He describes his experience at Rutgers where as a freshman he is paired with a roommate who also is a polio victim and obsessed with being his pre-polio self.

The narrator’s story is reflected in observations found in David M. Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story of 2005. Quoting a survivor in the chapter “Celebrities and Survivors”: “What polio survivors have always had in common, however, is a drive to excel in the face of physical disability.” He further quotes one survivor: “We were taught to be tough and gritty. I did what was expected. . . . I needed to have a disciplined life with a no-quit attitude that was what worked.”

In Bucky Cantor, Roth has created a man with deep psychic scars, whose once splendid athletic body has been so ravaged by the disease that he cannot recover physically or emotionally and is left to limp through life. Throughout the novel, Bucky struggles with questions of faith, how there could be a god that could strike down innocent children with such a cruel illness. Perhaps it is the demoralizing guilt and shame the Bucky struggled with even before he was struck down with polio that defeated him.

It is too early to know what the physical and emotional toll will be on society and for survivors of the Covid–19 pandemic of 2020. We hope that as a society we shall have the will to recover and emerge with the wisdom to learn from our mistakes better prepared for the future.

 


 

JAMES L. FRANKLIN is a gastroenterologist and associate professor emeritus at Rush University Medical Center. He also serves on the editorial board of Hektoen International and as the president of Hektoen’s Society of Medical History & Humanities.

 

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