Nemesis ~ Philip RothIn this day and age when parents can look in the face of disease and laugh, can feel safe deciding not to vaccinate their children against the many diseases that are now considered completely preventable, can decide that in all actuality, many vaccines are suspect and may indeed be deadly or at least dangerous, it seems interesting to look back at a time before there were vaccines for many of childhood’s diseases.

Personally, I distrust the idea that a disease that can do the damage to whole communities such as diphtheria, measles, rubella, small pox, and polio is anything to be taken lightly. But I also understand the concerns with vaccination, that the chemicals that are being used may not, in fact, be safe. And that with any vaccine, no matter how safe, every person’s physiology is different, and some small percentage of the population is almost guaranteed to react badly, perhaps fatally, to a vaccine. We weigh the risks, not only upon our child, but also upon the community, of vaccination vs. non-vaccination, and we decide where to go from there. Mostly complacent in the knowledge that these diseases are close to being eradicated in the United States. Your healthy child might easily survive the measles or mumps, but your neighbor with Lupus hasn’t a chance.

Iron Lung in polio outbreak

I found the idea of going back to 1944, before the polio vaccine was developed, an interesting one. That the author, Philip Roth, remembers those days, remembers being kept inside and not allowed to play during the summer, for fear of a disease that could paralyze you, put you into an iron lung (imagine living 40 or 50 years trapped in that thing!), cripple you. I remember working with a woman who had a severe limp, and asking her about it. “Polio,” she said. “I had polio as a child. We didn’t have the vaccine in my country.” Chilling, especially as she was on her feet all day for work, and the stress that was put upon her body can not have been fun. My back aches if I sit too long at my computer. Imagine standing all day at an angle that is not natural for your spine. So I heard an interview on NPR with Philip Roth, the author of Nemesis, talking about his childhood memories of that fear, and I was intrigued.

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

The fear in Nemesis is palpable. The hysteria that surrounds an outbreak in the Italian and Jewish neighborhoods of Newark is not difficult to imagine, unless you are such an amnesiac that you cannot remember the Avian Flu of a few years ago, or the H1N1 from last year. Trying to determine who to blame, what precautions one can take to protect one’s self and one’s children, trying to find a way to feel safe against such a virulent and invisible killer, we’ve seen this first hand.

Enter Bucky Cantor, the 23-year-old protagonist, the director of a community playground in Newark in 1944. Bucky aspires to be the head of the physical education department at the local school, and bitterly resents the humiliation of not being able to go overseas to fight the Germans and Japanese with his friends, due to his poor eyesight. Bucky is a deeply moral young man, who shakes his fist at the immorality of a God that would pick his young charges off, one by one, killing some and immobilizing others. The children look up to him, he is their hero, kind and fair and disciplined, wanting nothing more than to teach them how to be strong of body and character, to encourage the strengths of determination and discipline amongst them. When the epidemic starts keeping more and more children home, killing some and crippling others, Bucky’s girlfriend, Marcia, calls and begs him to desert his post, and come to the relative safety of the summer camp in the Poconos where she is a counselor.

Bucky’s failings come in his lack of imagination, and in his strict moral code that causes him to blame himself for all of the troubles that afflict the children. He feels that he deserves punishment, and the furthest his imagination can travel is to protect those that he loves, not stopping to consider whether his actions are actually protecting them or not. This self-flagellation turns out to be his own undoing.

Roth’s failing is in writing a book that feels too much on the surface, with a character that I never felt I truly knew, and language that only occasionally felt real. The book feels somehow redundant, but only with itself, and sometimes too simple to be truly engaging. There are, however, some gorgeous passages, hinting obliquely of greatness. That they are few and far between is too bad. I’d recommend the book, but with reservations. If you decide to read it, get it from the library.

2 thoughts on “Nemesis

  1. I’m kind of scared to comment on the vaccination topic, it evokes such strong feelings on both side. You did a nice job of outlining some of the opposing concerns. (It does seem to me that if a family decides not to vaccinate its young members, it’s fair for schools to ask those students to stay home for however long, to protect those more vulnerable and perhaps prevent a mass outbreak.)

  2. I agree with Linda. You did a great job of presenting both sides of the vaccine “controversy.” The book, unfortunately, didn’t meet your expectations in good novel writing, but it seems Roth did get you think about a viral outbreak and how, in the comfort of our supposedly post-polio world, we can make decisions that are potentially dangerous for the larger society.

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