12 October 2010


Philip Roth’s new book, Nemesis, takes place during the polio epidemic in New Jersey in 1944. Nemesis, a female goddess in Greek mythology, was the spirit of divine retribution against those who suffer from hubris, or the assumption of too much belief in their human capacity to control events. Today, nemesis refers to an archenemy, as Lex Luthor was Superman’s enemy, or the Joker serves as Batman’s, or the Republican Party as mine. Nemesis serves as a check (and often a checkmate) to one’s authority. Nemesis is not fate but she may appear to be fate to those who in their unbridled pride maintain their belief intheir absolute power to control events and themselves. Nemesis punctures that pride, and I think that it is in response to Nemesis that one’s character becomes clear. It is certainly so in this novel. Perhaps this may be the case in many of Roth’s novels, and especially the later ones.
     Bucky Cantor is a young gym teacher at a local elementary school in the Newark, New Jersey area, and is hired as playground coordinator in the Weequahic section of the city at the conclusion of the school year. For those children home for the summer, Cantor is hired by the city to organize and supervise recreational activities for the children who are out of school and home for the summer. In his stature and his actions, BuckyMr. Cantor as the narrator of the first section refers to him—serves as the boys’ hero.  It is he to whom they look for organization, direction and control. Around Bucky the boys feel safe. The year is 1944 and because Bucky must wear corrective lenses for his seriously strained eyesight he has received a 4F from his draft board and become exempt from service in the military during World War II. His two college friends, Jake and Dave, are both overseas and fighting in the invasion of France during the Normandy offensive. Of course, Bucky is devastated by his inability to serve in the war, almost ashamed to have remained states side, but he approaches his job with an energy and determination that can only be admired. At first, all that Bucky must handle is the normal energy of adolescent boys and girls and the horrible heat that oppresses the area. But then suddenly, the occasional case of polio escalates into an epidemic, and suddenly Bucky’s ranks are soon shrunken by the onslaught of the disease, His boys become sick and some of them die.
     Throughout the epidemic Bucky remains remarkably calm; he visits the families of the boys who succumbed, and is often the target of their vitriol—it is he they blame in their grief for allowing the boys to play so hard during the oppressive heat of the summer—which he accepts with patience and equanimity. He controls the presence of Horace, the local cognitively disabled man, and he protects the boys, many if not all of them Jewish, from the invasion of ten Italian young men who assert that they are bringing the polio to the Jewish section! When they spit all over the ground, planting the polio germs on the ground, Bucky orchestrates the peaceful departure of the Italian boys and then has the boys clean the sidewalk with hot water and ammonia, as if they had indeed, left behind the polio and Bucky could cleanse the infection. He consults with his girl friend’s father, Dr. Steinberg, who assures him that though the epidemic seems harsh, it is no worse than a previous appearance in 1916 (during another war) and assures Bucky that he is doing the right thing by his boys. He calms Bucky’s fears, and removes his doubt that the world is operated by a cruel God or even by no God at all!! Bucky Cantor returns to his own charges and assuages their fears  with his knowledge and his presumed power. He serves as the boys’ hero.
     But when given a chance to escape the city, Bucky leaps at the chance and takes a job as a waterfront director at a camp in the Poconos where his girlfriend, and soon to be fiancé, serves as counselor. There, amidst the green and fresh air, life seems perfect—until the first case of polio strikes a counselor in Bucky’s bunk. And then the disease afflicts several other campers as well as Marcia’s sister, and then finally polio strikes Bucky himself. But upon discovering that he is infected, Bucky interprets himself as the germ, the infection that has corrupted not only the boys on the playground but the paradise in the Poconos, and his pride refuses to accept that he is a victim and not the cause of the epidemic.  But oddly, his nemesis is not polio but the pride in his belief that he has been the carrier of the plague that originally infected the playground of Weequahic and now afflicts the idyllic setting of Indian Hills, Bucky’s pride presumes a world where Bucky is able to control events, and his unwillingness to accept this lack of control destroys his life. He is his own nemesis.
     We ignore the contingent at the expense of our lives, and to ignore the contingent is to relinquish whatever small control we yet retain in this world. But the contingent, by definition, is so out of our control that we would dismiss it from our consciousness. It is Bucky’s seeming invincibility that remains the lasting image of Arnie Mesnikof remembers of Bucky from that summer: “Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder—and releasing it then like an explosion—he seemed to us invincible.” But it is all illusion.

Alas, he wasn’t. Nor was Arnie, who contracted polio during that horrible summer. Nor am I.


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