Love in the Time of Polio

Nemesis by Philip Roth

Books Literature
Philip Roth: Flimsy narrative

Philip Roth’s Nemesis is set during an outbreak of polio that ravaged a Jewish neighbourhood of Newark, New Jersey, in the summer of 1944. Polio was known in the US as the summer plague, because the epidemics occurred during the school holidays and affected mostly children and teenagers.

Poliomyelitis is carried by a waterborne virus, which lodges in the gut before attacking the central nervous system. The effects include paralysis of the limbs, breathing difficulties and, in a small minority of cases, death. It was unrecognised before the 19th century, and it seems likely that its increasing incidence in the developed world was due to the progressive introduction of good plumbing and purer water. Children who would otherwise have developed immunity to the virus in infancy became vulnerable. Outbreaks of polio intensified during the middle of the 20th century until, in 1955, the first successful vaccine was developed in the US by Dr Jonas Salk. Another vaccine was developed the following year by Dr Albert Sabin. Interestingly in light of this book’s setting, Salk and Sabin were American Jews of Russian origin.

Polio was largely eradicated by the early Sixties, although it left hundreds of thousands of partially disabled survivors, including your reviewer. It was a great joy to me that, by about 1980, it was necessary to explain to younger people what polio was.

Nemesis is in many respects a weak book. The flimsy narrative framework dissolves early in the novel, as if Roth had just forgotten it. The prose is leaden, the characters cardboard and the dialogue wooden. Roth cannot use three words when ten will do, and this cannot be wholly excused on the grounds that American English is actually a form of German that employs English vocabulary. But he raises his game towards the end with passages of unexpected lyricism.

For all its faults, Nemesis is oddly affecting. It tells the story of an earnest 23-year-old, Bucky Cantor, who works as a PE teacher in Weequahic, the Jewish district of Newark where Roth himself grew up. Bucky’s poor eyesight exempts him from the draft that has taken his school friends to war. He compensates by working hard and developing his athletic prowess. His devotion to the children he serves contrasts with his own background: father was an absent wastrel, mother died in childbirth and Bucky has been raised by his poor, hard-working grandparents. His fiancée is a middle-class school-teacher, Marcia, whose doctor father is, like most of the characters in the book, a two-dimensional paragon of virtue.

A gang of Italian youths arrives at the playground to intimidate the Jews by spitting on the pavement, which, they sneer, will give them polio. Bucky sees them off, and sets to work cleaning and disinfecting the sidewalk they have defiled. Protection and purification are important themes in Nemesis. But all Bucky’s care cannot prevent some of his charges from contracting the summer plague. Fear spreads through the community, fear as much of the unknown as of the destruction polio visits on their children. Bucky worries he may unwittingly have spread the disease, but stays miserably at his post until Marcia, working as a counsellor at a Jewish summer camp in the Pennsylvania hills, persuades him to join her.

In contrast with the fearful disease-ridden ghetto of Weequahic, Camp Indian is an American Eden with woods and lake and good clean American fun, allowing Roth the odd comic moment. But Bucky carries his guilt at abandoning the playground, and a fear that he has brought polio into Paradise, PA. Whether he has or not, polio arrives, and Bucky is one of the casualties. He ends up with a withered arm and a leg in irons — and profound guilt. “I wanted to help kids and make them strong and instead I did them irrevocable harm.”

Bucky blames God and turn his back on the world, and especially on the loving Marcia. It is a quarter of a century before he begins to talk about the 1944 plague and then only to a fellow survivor.

He sees his plight as nemesis, apt reward for his failings. But he is wrong. More properly, his situation is governed by Nemesis’s sister, Tyche, who dispenses random fortune. Although he sees himself as strong, self-sacrificing and ready to accept the consequences of his actions, Bucky is actually on a monumental ego trip.

The truth is that physical disability, of whatever cause, is a challenge and an opportunity, both for the sufferer and for the people with whom he comes in contact. It provides boundless possibilities for loving kindness, as well as challenging the disabled person to face the world positively. 

That may be easier for me to say than for fictional Bucky. I had polio in India just before my third birthday in 1955, and was more damaged, physically, than Bucky. I can’t remember life pre-polio, and my parents worked hard to make sure that I had an optimistic outlook and a “normal” childhood and education. I was encouraged to think of myself being as good as anyone else.

Actually I was (and, friends might say, remain) as bad as anyone else, self-indulgent, lazy and headstrong. In mid-life, I became mildly workaholic and built up a successful publishing business, the sort of initiative common among polio survivors. But it is not will-power that has got me through: it is the abundant kindness of total strangers, the love of my parents and sisters, my friends, above all my wife Fiona and our children, that has helped me to live my life as God intended. It is not easy for them: I never really felt disabled until the birth of our first son, when I was confronted with my inability to carry him more than a few feet. It is Fiona who has done all the heavy lifting and asked for nothing more than a kiss.

Philip Roth does not convince me that Bucky’s conscience would force him to deny such love.