Nemesis by Phillip Roth

Our member Iris Berke writes:

Unlike many of Philip Roth’s other protagonists, the hero of this novel is a genuinely admirable, wholesome, socially-conscious, morally upstanding young man. This aptly-titled novel deals with a polio epidemic in the largely Jewish Weequahic section of Newark, N.J., during the sultry summer of 1944. Polio is the “nemesis” of the title – an unbeatable opponent, a source of harm, ruin or retribution. In mythology, Nemesis was the goddess of indignation against, and retribution for, evil deeds and undeserved good fortune. There couldn’t be a better title for this novel.

The novel explores themes of faith, justice, vulnerability, resilience, guilt and grief, dealt with in various ways by each of the inter-connected characters in the Weequahic community. Despite any scientific proof, 23 year old Bucky Cantor feels responsible for spreading polio. He thinks he failed to protect the boys his city summer recreation program from the scourge. Next, when the epidemic breaks out at the mountain summer camp where he goes as waterfront counselor, he is sure he brought the illness from the city.

Upstanding, conscientious, dependable Bucky serves as the observer, recorder, and emotional focus of all the other characters’ reactions to the capricious pestilence. The epidemic’s effect on parents, doctors, siblings, neighbors, and the polio victims themselves (survivors and those who succumb), are all filtered through Bucky, who is left irreparably damaged by the illness. His excessively moral character and definition of justice impede his ability to accept evil in the world, and “move forward” with his life.