Nemesis (2010) is a short novel from Philip Roth’s extraordinary late period, one of the four novels he lists in his prelims as ‘Nemeses’. Set in Newark, New Jersey, in the ‘stifling heat’ of the summer of 1944, it feels like one of the most autobiographical of Roth’s late novels. Its subject is the polio epidemic that struck Newark in 1944, at a time when polio was a terrifying scourge, leaving its victims paralysed or disabled for life. Bucky Cantor, Roth’s protagonist, is a kind, vigorous, good man, in charge of a playground in central Newark because his weak eyes have prevented him from serving in the Forces. One by one the children under his care fall ill, and Bucky has to decide whether to stay or to escape to Indian Hill, a summer camp in the mountains where his girlfriend is working. The novel is brilliant about the fear that an epidemic breeds: panic, anger, bewilderment and pain.
Early in Nemesis is a scene I have never forgotten. One afternoon a group of Italian high school boys drive up to the playground. Bucky asks, ‘What do you fellows want here?’ ‘We’re spreadin’ polio,’ one of the Italians replied. They then spit on the pavement, covering it with ‘twenty square feet of a wet, slimy, disgusting mess’. Bucky swabs it up, using hot water and ammonia, and becomes a hero to his charges, ‘an idolized, protective, heroic older brother’. It’s a tiny scene, but it reverberates through the rest of the novel, giving the reader a shiver of disgust every time they think of it.
Chosen by Dan Franklin, Associate Publisher at Jonathan Cape, Vintage