Epidemics Come and Go: Review of Nemisis by Philip Roth


I’m guessing the last time I read Philip Roth, Ronald Regan was president. I recall reading Portnoy’s Complaint and, after seeing the movie, I read Good-bye Columbus. But this so-slim-it’s-really-a-novella novel leaped off the shelf at me. Well, the cover, being way different than those around it DID really catch my eye. (I’m guessing that’s what the cover artist was going for when he designed it.) The title of the first chapter will possibly stay with me forever: “Equitorial Newark.” Newark–as in New Jersey. I knew exactly what he meant after baking away summers in the mid-west without air conditioning as a child. I’m sure my pastoral suburban home was nowhere near as oppressive as the gritty, high-density apartments of Newark in 1944.

It may be hard for most readers to feel the terror of that one simple word “polio” today….at least until you translate it into today’s terrify-the-parents word, “autism.” If autism were seen as contagious you’d have the terror, the irrationality that besets playground manager Bucky Cantor as he watches the kids who populate his ball diamonds and skip rope on the sidewalk begins to be stricken and die with polio in those hellishly hot days of the summer of ’44. When a group of Italian toughs from a nearby neighborhood comes to the playground itching for a fight they leave a calling card that frightens. So too does the simple-minded man known as Horace.

Bucky is a decent man, striving to do the right thing, to be fair, to do “good.” But it reaches him. First one boy, then another dies. Then, the fabled offer he can’t refuse followed by, to me, a shocking ending. Nemesis by Philip Roth.

From my old blog on  June 27, 2011.

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