18 August 2010

Nemesis; Philip Roth

NemesisNemesis by Philip Roth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book may well resonate more with older readers because the era of the polio epidemic and the fear the disease engendered has become part of our rapidly disappearing past. It isn't until we're about halfway through the book that we learn that the narrator is one of 'Bucky' Cantor's playground boys, one who caught polio in the summer of '44.

'Bucky' is an orphan, being raised by his grandparents. The Newark in which he lives is sweltering in the summer heat, and instead of fighting overseas (he's 4F thanks to his eyesight) he is overseeing the summer program at a local playground. Lucky for him, he knows most of the boys through his work as p.e. teacher at the local school. One day, a bunch of Italian boys come to bully the Jewish playground kids... and polio rears its ugly head.

Children get sick and die, and Bucky begins to panic and to question God and faith. His girlfriend is a counselor at a summer camp in the Poconos, a "safe" area. Worried about him, she gets Bucky a job at the camp as waterfront director; initially thrilled to be with her, Bucky continues to question God's role in things in addition to his feelings of cowardice in the face of polio.

When polio follows Bucky to the camp, and ultimately taps him on the shoulder, it feels like fate (or a nemesis). While you don't feel as though you're reading a memoir, you are: Bucky is telling the tale of that long-ago summer to Artie, one of the polio victims/survivors from that summer. The bitterness and self-pity Bucky feels prior to polio is given full-reign after, and his relationship with Marcia is abruptly cut short (by his choice).

He's not a sympathetic character, but readers might relate to his fears and questions, not to mention his feelings of inadequacy due to his physical limitations. The ending, a memory of his incredible javelin tossing and his being (from the children's point-of-view) invincible, is poignant.

ARC provided by publisher.

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