Alice McVeigh

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Nemesis, by Philip Roth

An article by Alice McVeigh

By mid-century, polio had become the nation’s most feared disease. And with good reason. It hit without warning. It killed some victims and marked others for life, leaving behind vivid reminders for all to see: wheelchairs, crutches, leg braces and deformed limbs. In 1921, it paralyzed 39-year-old Franklin Delano Roosevelt, robust and athletic, with a long pedigree and a cherished family name. If a man like Roosevelt could be stricken, then no one was immune.”  (Yale School of Medicine).

This is blazingly, unrepentantly beautiful writing, with themes of guilt, innocence and redemption during the summer of 1944 when polio ravages Newark’s Jewish community. The relatable protagonist, Bucky is, in some sense, Everyman – a decent guy, a straight-shooter, a person determined to ‘do no harm’. He starts the novel still unreconciled to having been rejected for army service in WWII, and thus denied his shot, with his friends, at D-Day immortality.

His first struggles are small-scale: how far to go with his girlfriend and, with polio felling so of the local Jewish boys, whether he should still coach softball, where they mingle. However, darker clouds roll up with such perfect pacing – particularly once his fiancée persuades him to move to the youth camp – that the reader is hooked. Impeccably written, Nemesis is a perfectly controlled, slow-motion train-crash.

It also addresses massive issues. (“But for killing Alan with polio at twelve? For the very existence of polio? How could there be forgiveness – let alone hallelujahs – in the face of such/God’s lunatic cruelty?”) Pointing up the very pointlessness of chance, railing against God/fate, absorbing raw new resonances from the world’s recent experience of Covid – not to mention Dostoevsky – this slim book provokes considerations about learning to live, to love and to let go, lest, like Bucky, we transform into our own nemeses. In a small and claustrophobic setting, soused in guilt, Roth has conjured a mini-masterpiece.

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