by Philip Roth

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In the "stifling heat of equatorial Newark," a terrifying epidemic is raging, threatening the children of the New Jersey city with maiming, paralysis, lifelong disability, and even death. This is the startling theme of Philip Roth’s wrenching new book: a wartime polio epidemic in the summer of 1944 and the effect it has on a closely knit, family-oriented Newark community and its children.

At the center of Nemesis is a vigorous, dutiful twenty-three-year-old playground director, Bucky Cantor, a javelin thrower and weightlifter, who is devoted to his charges and disappointed with himself because his weak eyes have excluded him from serving in the war alongside his contemporaries. Focusing on Cantor’s dilemmas as polio begins to ravage his playground—and on the everyday realities he faces—Roth leads us through every inch of emotion such a pestilence can breed: the fear, the panic, the anger, the bewilderment, the suffering, and the pain.

Moving between the smoldering, malodorous streets of besieged Newark and Indian Hill, a pristine children’s summer camp high in the Poconos—whose "mountain air was purified of all contaminants"—Roth depicts a decent, energetic man with the best intentions struggling in his own private war against the epidemic. Roth is tenderly exact at every point about Cantor’s passage into personal disaster, and no less exact about the condition of childhood.

Through this story runs the dark questions that haunt all four of Roth’s late short novels, Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and now Nemesis: What kind of accidental choices fatally shape a life? How does the individual withstand the onslaught of circumstance?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547318356
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 10/05/2010
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

PHILIP ROTH (1933–2018) won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral in 1997. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House and in 2002 the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction, previously awarded to John Dos Passos, William Faulkner and Saul Bellow, among others. He twice won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2005 The Plot Against America received the Society of American Historians’ prize for “the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003–2004” and the W.H. Smith Award for the Best Book of the Year, making Roth the first writer in the forty-six-year history of the prize to win it twice.

In 2005 Roth became the third living American writer to have his works published in a comprehensive, definitive edition by the Library of America. In 2011 he received the National Humanities Medal at the White House, and was later named the fourth recipient of the Man Booker International Prize. In 2012 he won Spain’s highest honor, the Prince of Asturias Award, and in 2013 he received France’s highest honor, Commander of the Legion of Honor.



Date of Birth:

March 19, 1933

Place of Birth:

Newark, New Jersey


B.A. in English, Bucknell University, 1954; M.A. in English, University of Chicago, 1955

Read an Excerpt

Equatorial Newark
The first case of polio that summer came early in June, right after Memorial Day, in a poor Italian neighborhood crosstown from where we lived. Over in the city's southwestern corner, in the Jewish Weequahic section, we heard nothing about it, nor did we hear anything about the next dozen cases scattered singly throughout Newark in nearly every neighborhood but ours. Only by the Fourth of July, when there were already forty cases reported in the city, did an article appear on the front page of the evening paper, titled "Health Chief Puts Parents on Polio Alert," in which Dr. William Kittell, superintendent of the Board of Health, was quoted as cautioning parents to monitor their children closely and to contact a physician if a child exhibited symptoms such as headache, sore throat, nausea, stiff neck, joint pain, or fever. Though Dr. Kittell acknowledged that forty polio cases was more than twice as many as normally reported this early in the polio season, he wanted it clearly understood that the city of 429,000 was by no means suffering from what could be characterized as an epidemic of poliomyelitis. This summer as every summer, there was reason for concern and for the proper hygienic precautions to be taken, but there was as yet no cause for the sort of alarm that had been displayed by parents, "justifiably enough," twenty-eight years earlier, during the largest outbreak of the disease ever reported-the 1916 polio epidemic in the northeastern United States, when there had been more than 27,000 cases, with 6,000 deaths. In Newark there had been 1,360 cases and 363 deaths.
 Now even in a year with an average number of cases, when the chances of contracting polio were much reduced from what they'd been back in 1916, a paralytic disease that left a youngster permanently disabled and deformed or unable to breathe outside a cylindrical metal respirator tank known as an iron lung-or that could lead from paralysis of the respiratory muscles to death-caused the parents in our neighborhood considerable apprehension and marred the peace of mind of children who were free of school for the summer months and able to play outdoors all day and into the long twilit evenings. Concern for the dire consequences of falling seriously ill from polio was compounded by the fact that no medicine existed to treat the disease and no vaccine to produce immunity. Polio-or infantile paralysis, as it was called when the disease was thought to infect mainly toddlers-could befall anyone, for no apparent reason. Though children up to sixteen were usually the sufferers, adults too could become severely infected, as had the current president of the United States.
 Franklin Delano Roosevelt, polio's most renowned victim, had contracted the disease as a vigorous man of thirty-nine and subsequently had to be supported when he walked and, even then, had to wear heavy steel-and-leather braces from his hips to his feet to enable him to stand. The charitable institution that FDR founded while he was in the White House, the March of Dimes, raised money for research and for financial assistance to the families of the stricken; though partial or even full recovery was possible, it was often only after months or years of expensive hospital therapy and rehabilitation. During the annual fund drive, America's young donated their dimes at school to help in the fight against the disease, they dropped their dimes into collection cans passed around by ushers in movie theaters, and posters announcing "You Can Help, Too!" and "Help Fight Polio!" appeared on the walls of stores and offices and in the corridors of schools across the country, posters of children in wheelchairs-a pretty little girl wearing leg braces shyly sucking her thumb, a clean-cut little boy with leg braces heroically smiling with hope-posters that made the possibility of getting the disease seem all the more frighteningly real to otherwise healthy children.
 Summers were steamy in low-lying Newark, and because the city was partially ringed by extensive wetlands-a major source of malaria back when that, too, was an unstoppable disease-there were swarms of mosquitoes to be swatted and slapped away whenever we sat on beach chairs in the alleys and driveways at night, seeking refuge out of doors from our sweltering flats, where there was nothing but a cold shower and ice water to mitigate the hellish heat. This was before the advent of home air conditioning, when a small black electric fan, set on a table to stir up a breeze indoors, offered little relief once the temperature reached the high nineties, as it did repeatedly that summer for stretches of a week or ten days. Outdoors, people lit citronella candles and sprayed with cans of the insecticide Flit to keep at bay the mosquitoes and flies that were known to have carried malaria, yellow fever, and typhoid fever and were believed by many, beginning with Newark's Mayor Drummond, who launched a citywide "Swat the Fly" campaign, to carry polio. When a fly or a mosquito managed to penetrate the screens of a family's flat or fly in through an open door, the insect would be doggedly hunted down with fly swatter and Flit out of fear that by alighting with its germ-laden legs on one of the household's sleeping children it would infect the youngster with polio. Since nobody then knew the source of the contagion, it was possible to grow suspicious of almost anything, including the bony alley cats that invaded our backyard garbage cans and the haggard stray dogs that slinked hungrily around the houses and defecated all over the sidewalk and street and the pigeons that cooed in the gables of the houses and dirtied front stoops with their chalky droppings. In the first month of the outbreak-before it was acknowledged as an epidemic by the Board of Health-the sanitation department set about systematically to exterminate the city's huge population of alley cats, even though no one knew whether they had any more to do with polio than domesticated house cats.
 What people did know was that the disease was highly contagious and might be passed to the healthy by mere physical proximity to those already infected. For this reason, as the number of cases steadily mounted in the city-and communal fear with it-many children in our neighborhood found themselves prohibited by their parents from using the big public pool at Olympic Park in nearby Irvington, forbidden to go to the local "air-cooled" movie theaters, and forbidden to take the bus downtown or to travel Down Neck to Wilson Avenue to see our minor league team, the Newark Bears, play baseball at Ruppert Stadium. 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. We were to wash all fruit and vegetables before we ate them, and we were to keep our distance from anyone who looked sick or complained of any of polio's telltale symptoms.
 Escaping the city's heat entirely and being sent off to a summer camp in the mountains or the countryside was considered a child's best protection against catching polio. So too was spending the summer some sixty miles away at the Jersey Shore. A family who could afford it rented a bedroom with kitchen privileges in a rooming house in Bradley Beach, a strip of sand, boardwalk, and cottages a mile long that had already been popular for several decades among North Jersey Jews. There the mother and the children would go to the beach to breathe in the fresh, fortifying ocean air all week long and be joined on weekends and vacations by the father. Of course, cases of polio were known to crop up in summer camps as they did in the shore's seaside towns, but because they were nothing like as numerous as those reported back in Newark, it was widely believed that, whereas city surroundings, with their unclean pavements and stagnant air, facilitated contagion, settling within sight or sound of the sea or off in the country or up in the mountains afforded as good a guarantee as there was of evading the disease.
 So the privileged lucky ones disappeared from the city for the summer while the rest of us remained behind to do exactly what we shouldn't, given that "overexertion" was suspected of being yet another possible cause of polio: we played inning after inning and game after game of softball on the baking asphalt of the school playground, running around all day in the extreme heat, drinking thirstily from the forbidden water fountain, between innings seated on a bench crushed up against one another, clutching in our laps the well-worn, grimy mitts we used out in the field to mop the sweat off our foreheads and to keep it from running into our eyes-clowning and carrying on in our soaking polo shirts and our smelly sneakers, unmindful of how our imprudence might be dooming any one of us to lifelong incarceration in an iron lung and the realization of the body's most dreadful fears.
 Only a dozen or so girls ever appeared at the playground, mainly kids of eight or nine who could usually be seen jumping rope where far center field dropped off into a narrow school street closed to traffic. When the girls weren't jumping rope they used the street for hopscotch and running-bases and playing jacks or for happily bouncing a pink rubber ball at their feet all day long. Sometimes when the girls jumping rope played double dutch, twirling two ropes in opposite directions, one of the boys would rush up unbidden and, elbowing aside the girl who was about to jump, leap in and mockingly start bellowing the girls' favorite jumping song while deliberately entangling himself in their flying ropes. "H, my name is Hippopotamus—!" The girls would holler at him "Stop it! Stop it!" and call out for help from the playground director, who had only to shout from wherever he was on the playground to the troublemaker (most days it was the same boy), "Cut it out, Myron! Leave the girls alone or you're going home!" With that, the uproar subsided. Soon the jump ropes were once again snappily turning in the air and the chanting taken up anew by one jumper after another.


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Roth’s book has the elegance of a fable and the tragic inevitability of a Greek drama.”—The New Yorker

“An artfully constructed, suspenseful novel with a cunning twist towards the end.”—J. M. Coetzee, New York Review of Books

“Elegant. . . . Suffused with precise and painful tenderness. . . . Stands out for its warmth.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Painful and powerful. . . . Somberly but vividly, [Roth] recreates the panic and fear triggered by polio.” —USA Today

“A perfectly proportioned Greek tragedy played out against the background of the polio epidemic that swept Newark, New Jersey, during the summer of 1944.” —Financial Times
 “Like a very well-executed O. Henry story. . . . A parable about the embrace of conscience. . . .and what its suffocating, life-denying consequences can be.” –Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Yet another small triumph from one of our native artists largest in spirit. And by small I mean in length of the book. . . . This dual portrait, of a neighborhood and of a man quite representative of the times when trouble struck his neighborhood with lethal force, gives this new novel a singular appeal.” —Chicago Tribune
“Roth writes a lean, vigorous prose that burns with the intensity of his purpose. It flows smoothly even when he wrestles with the knottiest of philosophical problems.” —Plain Dealer
“Exquisite. It is utterly straightforward American realism that could almost have been written not long after Letting Go and Goodbye Columbus at the beginning of Roth’s career.” —Buffalo News
“Roth is all about character and how we are shaped by improbable circumstances, and here he offers up insight to match his many years on the job.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Grippingly and with documentary expertise, it tells a story set in the devastating 1944 polio epidemic. . . . Roth writes vividly of heat-choked streets and cramped houses.” —Boston Globe
“Classic Roth: handsomely written, historically evocative and brutally honest about human emotions. . . . Impressive.” —Richmond Times Dispatch
“Roth’s prose, that magnificent voice of his, has always fed off the twin passions of lust and rage.” —The New Republic
“Roth does an excellent job of conjuring up the fear that polio caused before the arrival of a vaccine. . . . Cantor is one of Roth’s best creations and the atmosphere of terror is masterfully fashioned.” —The Daily Telegraph (UK)
“Roth has always been terrific at rendering the times and places close to his own youth. And in Nemesis, he masterly contrasts the sweaty, close world of all-day ball games and nights spent on front stoops with affluence and young love developing in the cool countryside. . . . A quick, propulsive read full of chiseled storytelling.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Some of the most scathing and beautiful prose of our time.” —The Toronto Star
“Part of the appeal—and the strangeness—of Roth’s novel is the way that it renders this situation, with its seemingly undramatic topic and unlikely protagonist, without hyperbole, yet maintains a grasp on the tension and ethical drama.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)

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Nemesis 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 86 reviews.
KenCady More than 1 year ago
I hate being the one to write the first review. I dread that others will come along later and point out how I didn't get the book at all, or I missed the important stuff. And a Phillip Roth novel- no reviews yet? Roth's new novel, Nemesis, is about a polio epidemic in 1944. The war is going on when suddenly young people throughout Newark are hit by polio. Roth befuddles me often as his books are either very appealing or a big turnoff to me. But Nemesis is magnificent. It brings the epidemic home, engages the reader as it both educates and infuriates, and the real Nemesis proves to be God, not polio. No, I didn't give anything away there as it is only my interpretation. But you will find yourself having many conversations with yourself when you put this short novel down.
radioguy More than 1 year ago
Mr. Ross is always worthwhile, but I feel this is one of his lesser achievements. I never really felt it went any where. It rather droned on and was lacking the thematic and narrative flare of his other works. Rather flat all around. A title in his minor catalog.
Sandito-Gordito More than 1 year ago
It appears to me that Mr Roth, in his old age of 78, has gotten into a position of putting out publications which are trashy in order to reap in great profits by depending on his past great works. This tale of about 130 pages devotes the first 100 pages to a somewhat interesting story which he drops like a hot potato. After the story somewhat ends at page 100, Roth uses the next 30 pages to sort of explain what and why the first 100 occured. It's as if Roth wrote the first hundred pages and decided that he had given enough of himself and then tried to close out in the next senseless 30 pages.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Strong interaction between physical and mental health. Physical compromises weigh heavily on personal pride which strongly affects relationships. The author demonstrates this throughout the book.
spounds on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
These days we seem to be infected with a heavy dose of libertarianism. I'm OK; you're OK; now get off my lawn.But what if the opposite were true? What if you were someone who felt an inordinate amount of responsibility for others--and what if they started to die?Bucky Cantor is a playground director in Newark when the 1943 polio epidemic breaks out. He feels a strong responsibility for keeping his charges both safe from the hazards of the disease, but also from unneeded hysteria. When polio arrives in his neighborhood, Bucky seeks out advice on the right thing to do--and he does it. And then one day he makes a decision that will haunt him the rest of his life.The conclusion of Nemesis takes place 30 years after the first part of the story as Bucky retells how he has dealt with his decision and its consequences.Roth spends this last bit pondering the idea of responsibility and the guilt that it can bring when the circumstance is more than someone can handle. At what point can I stop being my brother's keeper and just keep myself? Or is there such a point?
rmckeown on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Back in the 60s, Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth¿s first novel, had everybody buzzing. I read it, but did not like it at all. The ¿rule of 50¿ lay years in my future, so I struggled to the end. This turned me off Roth until I read Everyman several years ago. Then, I read a few of his recent novels, and tried Goodbye again. This time, the rule of 50 played an important role ¿ I still did not like that novel. Without any trepidation, however, I dove into Nemesis published a short time ago. Am I glad I did! Now, Roth is my front runner for the Nobel Prize for Literature because of the way he chronicles life in America in the last half of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries. This novel is unlike anything I have read by Roth. Nothing put pure, young, innocent love set during a tragic episode in American history.Bucky Cantor¿s mother died in childbirth, and his father ended up in prison. Raised by his grandparents, they taught him self-reliance, the value of hard work, and he became quite an athlete. When Pearl Harbor suffered an attack, he tried to enlist with his friends, but poor eyesight earned him a classification of 4-F. These misfortunes haunted him for most of his life. Upon graduation from the ironically named ¿Panzer College,¿ he landed a job at a local elementary school as a physical education teacher. There he met Marcia, a new first grade teacher. The two instantly fell in love, but Cantor¿s depression over his misfortunes shadowed him throughout his life. When a polio epidemic hits Newark in the summer of 1944, Bucky searches for an explanation in a world controlled by God. He spends much of the rest of his life wondering why God lets bad things happen to innocent children.Roth has penned an absorbing and tightly drawn story of not only a man, but of a community and a tragedy of terrible proportions. In A Distant Mirror, the late historian, Barbara Tuchman, draws parallels between the 14th and 20th centuries. The bubonic plague which swept through Europe six centuries ago killed tens of millions of people. Superstition, and lack of basic understanding of infections and how they spread through a population, fueled panic, anti-Semitism, and incidents of violence against communities viewed as likely scapegoats. Roth demonstrates Tuchman¿s thesis had more parallels than she mentioned, since her book mainly focused on the flu epidemic of 1918, in which tens of millions died world-wide. This pattern was repeated with the polio epidemic of the 40s and again with the A.I.D.S. epidemic which began in the 80s. Fortunately, modern science took the reins with explanations and treatments for both 20th century plagues. History does repeat itself.Nemesis is the fourth in a series of short novels grouped under the heading Nemeses. If you haven¿t read Roth in a while, start with this slim volume and work your way back to something near the beginning. Then try Goodbye, Columbus again. I believe the careful reader will discover a clear distinction between the early Roth and the master novelist of today. (5 Stars)--Jim, 11/5/10
SamSattler on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of my earliest memories is of watching the few toys I owned being destroyed in a barnyard fire set especially for that purpose. From what I have been told, the toys were burned in hope that I would not fall victim to polio, as had the little boy who had played with those toys and me only a few days earlier. My parents, I am sure, were terrified, and they felt that they had to do something. It was only a year or so later that I understood the whole story, but the experience is something that still crosses my mind every year or so.Philip Roth¿s latest novel, Nemesis, revisits those terrible days during which the general public had no idea how polio was spread and had to watch helplessly as countless children and young people were stricken. Set in a Jewish, Newark neighborhood in 1944, the book captures the feeling of panic and overwhelming despair that accompanied the regular arrival of that dreaded killer-disease. Bucky Cantor, who was quite the high school athlete, is disappointed to find himself one of the very few able-bodied young men still walking the streets of his neighborhood. Even now, at the peak of World War II, Bucky¿s eyesight is so bad that no branch of the United States military will accept him. As a way of serving his community, Bucky has taken on the responsibility of running the park where the neighborhood youngsters spend their summer days playing baseball or enduring rope-jumping marathons.All goes well until one of those children is stricken by polio. That case is just the first of many and, before long, panic and finger pointing will begin. Bucky Cantor, a young man with high expectations of himself, will find himself torn between staying with the young teens who so much admire him or joining his girlfriend in employment at a prestigious children¿s camp in the Poconos. His decision will change lives in a way he never imagined.A chief strength of Nemesis is the vividness with which Roth recreates the impact of polio on the psyche of the country before Dr. Jonas Salk¿s vaccine began to eradicate the disease in 1955. The book is, however, also an excellent character study of a young man who could never live up to his own expectations of personal behavior. Bucky Cantor¿s high ideals, combined with the personal guilt he feels when he fails to match those ideals, make for a highly destructive combination of beliefs. Personal failure, always likely when the bar is set so high, would mean that, soon enough, Bucky would no longer have ¿a conscious he could live with.¿The inherent tragedy of Nemesis and a young man like Bucky Cantor is best summed up by another of the book¿s characters who said about Bucky: ¿The guilt in someone like Bucky may seem absurd but, in fact, is unavoidable. Such a person is condemned. Nothing he does matches the ideal in him. He never knows where his responsibility ends. He never trusts his limits because, saddled with a natural goodness that will not permit him to resign himself to the suffering of others, he will never guiltlessly acknowledge that he has any limits.¿Bucky Cantor could not protect the park children from polio; even worse, he could not protect himself from failing to reach his own personal ideals.Rated at: 4.0
JaneSteen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Where I got the book: my own choice from the library.I've only read one other book by Philip Roth, The Human Stain. And I wasn't crazy about it, although I thought the writing was superior. (And I guess a few other people thought so too, since it won a PEN/Faulkner Award.)I liked Nemesis a whole lot more, even though I thought the novel was structurally flawed. Or is that genius, to build flaws deliberately into a novel and then get away with it? It's a fine line.[SPOILER ALERT] Nemesis is set in Newark in the hot summer of 1944, specifically in the Jewish community in Weequahic. It begins in an expository style, explaining the origins of the polio epidemic of that year, before introducing the main character, Bucky Cantor. This young man, a superb athlete but barred from war service by poor eyesight, works as a playground supervisor and has a passion for helping children grow as athletes. He is a model citizen: brought up by his grandparents, he grew up working in their business and did well at school. He is small, tough, and respected, and his relationship with a doctor's daughter promises a rise in society.But the polio epidemic hits Weequahic hard, and the playground is particularly badly affected. Children sicken and even die, and Bucky Cantor's faith in God is shaken as he tries to comfort the families and puzzle out why "his" children should be the victims of such a virulent strain. When he finally gives in to the temptation to leave it all behind and join his girlfriend at a camp in the mountains, Bucky's nemesis follows him and destroys his life.This is a great story told mostly in a tight narrative style interspersed with dialogue. I loved the affectionate descriptions of the community and its people, and really got a sense of the suffering of the families. The writing is excellent: tight and compelling, it sketches scenes with great economy of detail but considerable power, and the dialogues and action are completely convincing.Where the book fell down, for me, was the odd shock of discovering, about halfway into the book, that the narrator is not the anonymous "omniscient" so useful to novelists, but one of the polio victims; he tells Bucky's story (so that we see Bucky mostly as "Mr. Cantor") but really tells us almost nothing about his own part in it. The idea that he would have become friends with Bucky later in life and is now narrating what he has learned from him just doesn't strike true. I would have been OK with an omniscient narrator, but I find a second-hand narrative through a very minor character rather jarring.The second thing I did not like was precisely the account of Bucky later in life, when he has turned his back on his former love and all that connected him with the playground. The embittered invalid is a familiar enough trope, but the way this section of the novel is sandwiched between the actual story and a final description of Bucky in his glory days (which strikes me as an attempt to balance out the present-day section) doesn't work for me. Bucky's anger against God is explored in this section, but I think it could have been worked more satisfactorily into the main narrative given Roth's great ability with the pen.But I could be wrong. Maybe the flaws are deliberate attempts to break the rhythm of the narrative and shock the reader out of complacency. If they are, then I respect them. My overall impression is still of a powerful piece of writing that is well worth reading.
brianinbuffalo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Roth ranks near the top of my favorite authors roster. His minimalist writing style, paired his ability to vividly capture eras in American history, rarely leave me disappointed.I really liked "Nemesis." It certainly won't be remembered as one of Roth's classics. But it skillfully explores the themes of fear and personal resonsibility against an intriguing backdrop -- the polio epidemic in the 1940s. However, I must agree with LT reviewer JaneSteen's critique of the novel's structure. I won't delve in detail here; I don't fancy writing "spoiler alerts." But the tome's structure was a bit disjointed. I also found that Roth's minimalist style worked against him in this thin volume. I wanted to know more about the roots of the protaganist's sad choices that changed his life. Having said all this, "Nemesis" is well worth reading.
nbsp on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love Philip Roth. He shows us the world through his narrow focus on Newark, N.J. In this short novel, the polio epidemic stalks the populace. Reactions vary from courage to anger, logic to insanity.Bucky Cantor is a likeable promising young Phys Ed teacher who runs a city playground. The story heats up as Bucky deals with the prejudices that arise as God's Chosen People appear to be spared.My mother spent a few scary nights with me as a child in the hospital with a suspected case of polio that turned out to be measles. And, my child was born in the early days of AIDS and I wrestled with the unknown dangers of that. So I had a special interest in Nemesis but I think it has general appeal given the fear of disease that we endure at least annually during flu season. And, even having lived through the polio crisis, I could never have predicted the story line.Audiobook reader Dennis Boutsikaris is stellar as always.
kidzdoc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"Bucky" Cantor is a young physical education teacher who is spending his summer as a playground director in the largely Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic in Newark, New Jersey. It is the summer of 1944, one that would be remembered for its brutal heat and its devastating outbreak of paralytic polio, the worst outbreak to strike the city since 1916. Bucky is distressed that he cannot join his two best friends in the war effort, as his poor eyesight makes him ineligible for the draft. He is a serious and dedicated teacher and mentor to the boys in the playground, who love and respect him unconditionally, as do their parents. Bucky is deeply in love is Marcia Steinberg, the strikingly beautiful daughter of a beloved community physician, who teaches in the same school where he works. She is spending the summer as a counselor in a camp in the Poconos, and she begs him to join her there.Weequahic is seemingly protected from polio, which has begun to make inroads in the surrounding neighborhoods, until two of the playground boys suddenly succumb to the illness. As the epidemic flares with a vengeance, the members of the community panic and point fingers at the city's leadership, the parents of the stricken children, and anyone suspected of bringing the infection into the neighborhood. Bucky is deeply shaken, and questions his own role in the outbreak, and how a merciful God could allow such a pestilence to strike against innocent children.A position for a swimming instructor becomes available at the camp where Marcia is working, and Bucky leaves the disease plagued city to be with Marcia. There it is cool and idyllic, and polio is a distant memory. Bucky, however, is conflicted by his decision to leave the boys and his community, who he feels need him more than ever, but he is also free of the fear that he or the children in the camp will be the next polio victim and is alongside the woman he intends to marry.In Nemesis, Roth does a fine job of portraying the fear and paranoia that resulted from that awful summer of 1944, and the devastating effect of paralytic polio on its survivors and on the families of those who died from the illness. However, the main characters are one dimensional and thinly portrayed, which greatly dilutes the effect of the story. Roth's main theme in the book, the struggle of one man's responsibility toward his community and country and its conflict with personal happiness and fulfillment, is not handled as well as it could have been, and it seemed to this reader that the first 3/4 of the book served as a set up for a discussion of this theme, making for a somewhat disjointed and unsatisfying read. Nemesis is a good book, but it could have been a great one.
tymfos on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In 1944, there was no vaccine or cure for polio (though treatments existed which helped, to some degree, many who contracted the disease). Indeed, though it was known to be highly contagious, the mechanism of polio's spread was not yet understood. As a result, all manner of theories abounded regarding the risks, leading to a general state of paranoia during outbreaks of the disease. Who/what was to blame for its spread? Flies? The hot dog vendor? A mentally-challenged neighbor? Contaminated library books?This story explores the grim reality of urban life in a polio outbreak. However, it is even more the story of a man's grim battle with his own thoughts -- his fear, his conscience, his doubts, his guilt, and his anger at God -- in the face of a disease he cannot control and a World War in which he was deemed too nearsighted to serve.Bucky Cantor is the neighborhood playground director, and he watches helplessly as his young charges begin to sicken and die of polio. The reality of the situation eats away at him as he ponders the opportunity to escape the inner city for work as a camp counselor in the Pocono Mountains, where his girlfriend Marcia works. What is his duty to his young charges at the playground? Is his playground a killing field of contagion, or an oasis from even more dangerous situations?I listened to the audio version of this book (a Brilliance Audio production) and found some parts compelling, some parts a bit tedious, and some parts mildly curious (such as the description of summer camp life in the 1940's). Then there were the moments that left me with an "oh, no!" on my lips and a sinking feeling in my stomach as I anticipated what manner of disaster loomed ahead. In the end the biggest tragedy is, perhaps, less a matter of germs and twisted limbs, and more a matter of psychology and twisted thoughts -- because sometimes our mental state can stunt our lives more than any physical ailment.
hemlokgang on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I thought this historically imagined tale of a polio outbreak in Newark, New Jersey was outstanding. Polio and its insidious spread is the metaphor for things which make us fear and from which it is difficult to protect oneself. Roth's insight into the workings of the human mind and heart are brilliant. The ultimate questions are what kind of God would create such a disease, what kind of God would allow small children to suffer, die, or move into adulthood permanently maimed? Yet.......there is the beauty of the protahonist's javelin throw......go figure! Great read!
djfifitrix on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, it was well written and a touching, but devastating story about the reaction of a young man, Bucky, to a sweeping polio epidemic that befalls many of his young charges at the playground he is caretaker for. Bucky's character and his repsonses to the epidemic are explored throughout the book, as he experiences and reacts to the mounting pressure and anxiety of such an epidemic, which becomes the focus of life in Newark towards the end of the Second World War. I found this book easy to read and Roth tells a wonderful story of human anxiety and fear, which tends to be a theme running through many of his works.
KatherineGregg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love Philip Roth but this was not my favorite. I listened to an interview of Roth on NPR recently and was looking forward to reading Nemesis. Roth is skillful in that he is able to convey so much in a few words. The construction of Nemesis was interesting with a narrator unknown until the end. The protagonist in Nemesis was like-able and it was disturbing to see the way his guilt (in not being fit to serve in war and in being a polio carrier) isolated him from people who cared about him for the rest of his life. It was very sad.
SyossetReaders on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Great fictional read about the 1950's polio epidemic and the effect it has on a small community in Newark, New Jersey. Particularly affected is the boy's gym teacher/summer playground supervisor, who makes a choice he later regrets.
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