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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Philip Roth - Nemesis

Often in life we are encountered with life-altering choices.  That's simple enough to state, as it is to say that those choices make us who we are.  Philip Roth's "Nemesis" is a novel that deals directly with the life choices of one Bucky Cantor, physical education teacher, and the community that he serves.  The problem--stated clearly from page one--is the mid-1940s polio epidemic that ravished the Newark ethnic communities.  Cantor is a complex character, with expectations for himself that are beyond impossible to achieve, and this settles the crux of the entire novel.  Orphaned at birth, he is brought up by a pair of "Old World" Jewish grandparents.  His grandfather influences Bucky in good ways, but that influence carries to such extreme that it damages Bucky's future before it can actually take off.

The summer playground Bucky Cantor runs in the intense heat of the season becomes a breeding ground for polio infections.  Before one quarter of the novel there are over 10 infections and various deaths.  As a role model of the community, Bucky Cantor begins to take on too many roles for a single man--he worries over whether or not he should keep the playground open, as two of his students died of polio.  It's the start of Bucky taking on responsibility for not only the spread of polio in the community, but also the beginning of his clash with the God of his lineage, a God he deems cruel and sadistic.

Bucky is in love with Marcia Steinberg, the daughter of a physician Bucky loves and respect.  Even the good doctor cannot convince Bucky that it is not his responsibility about the spread, but the effort goes to waste, "We may not know much about polio," Doctor Steinberg states, "but we know that [it doesn't spread as Bucky thinks]. Kids everywhere play hard out of doors all summer long, and even in an epidemic it's a very small percentage who become infected with the disease. And a very small percentage of those who get seriously ill from it. And a very small percentage of those who die--death results from respiratory paralysis, which is relatively rare. Every child who gets a headache doesn't come down with paralytic polio. That's why it's important not to exaggerate the danger and to carry on normally. You have nothing to feel guilty about. That's a natural reaction sometimes, but in your case it's not justified."  Bucky heeds the judgment of the good doctor but only for a few days.  His girlfriend is away at a camp in the woods, and she is begging for Bucky to resign his job at the inner-city playground and come to work at the camp.  And Bucky does (out of utterly impulse of the moment) quit his job and heads out to the camp in the woods.  The problem is that Bucky takes with him not only the responsibility he feels for the polio epidemic, but also the "fact" that he betrays the boys who were depending on him to open the playground.  Here one can see what is the key to Bucky's personality... this unrealistic, beyond human sense of duty and responsibility inculcated on him by his late grandfather.

Once the polio cases at the camp surge, Bucky gets tested and is certified by a doctor that he had been carrying the polio, and even though it could not be proven that it was Bucky who brought it to the camp (let alone the playground) Bucky takes on it like a cross to carry--it is all his fault, he convinces himself and takes on even more responsibility by sparring with a God he again deems evil and sadistic.  Polio does destroy everything Bucky Cantor wanted for his life--a relationship, a career, a healthy life. He becomes paralyzed and shuns his girlfriend when she comes to visit him, telling her it was better for her to not be engaged, let alone married, to a gimp.  This is a self-imposed martyrdom that Bucky (while not showing it publicly) seems to regret, a regret he turns into anger at the unfairness of a so-called fair God.

This is a story about choice, of course, but it is also a story about how our on unrealistic expectations of ourselves can deteriorate us until every single aspect of our lives become alien and distorted.  It is a very good novel for various reasons.  First, the narrative is well-paced and clear.  Secondly, the characters are all characters the reader can relate to and embrace, even when the decisions are as painful as Bucky's.

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