Philip Roth’s Nemesis is a taut, tense morality tale set amid a fictional polio epidemic in 1940s Newark, New Jersey, and a summer camp in the Pocono Mountains. Eschewing the humor and ribald sexuality of early Roth novels as well as the obsession with death found in the author’s more recent works, Nemesis focuses on the connections between ethics, mass fear, and belief.
As the book opens, Newark is suffering from a sudden breakout of polio, a paralyzing viral disease prevalent among infants and children. It is summer 1944, and the action centers in a playground in Weequahic, a Jewish neighborhood. The playground’s director, twenty-three-year-old Bucky Cantor, wants to keep panic at bay by keeping the children active and carefree.
Although the polio virus has not yet infiltrated Weequahic, everyone senses that danger and death lie right around the corner. A large part of this fear stems from ignorance: in 1944 polio is a mysterious ailment, and no one really knows what causes it. Therefore a variety of possible agents are blamed: flies, human contact, excessive heat. When youths from an Italian neighborhood hit hard by the epidemic show up at the playground and spit on the pavement as a provocation, Mr. Cantor acts as the Jewish children’s protector. He stands up to the Italians and forces them to leave, and then he makes sure the spit is cleaned up with hot water and ammonium.
A few days after the confrontation with the Italians, two boys who were at the playground that day come down with polio. The shock of the senseless suffering and eventual death of the boys begins to wear on Mr. Cantor. As more boys from the playground come down with polio and the number of boys playing baseball each weekday dwindles from ninety to around thirty, Mr. Cantor begins to question all that he believes in. He attends the funerals of the boys and attempts to console their parents. Privately he questions a God who could allow innocent children to suffer and die. He wonders if the playground should be shut down to stop the spread of the contagion and if he is doing the right thing by encouraging the boys to go on as if nothing is the matter.
Mr. Cantor’s girlfriend, Marcia, is away working at a summer camp in the Poconos. During one of their nightly phone calls, Marcia tells Mr. Cantor of an opening at her camp and asks him to take the job and join her. Mr. Cantor refuses because he feels that he could not, in good conscience, leave the boys at the playground and shirk his responsibility as director. The next night Mr. Cantor visits Marcia’s father, a respected doctor whose family lives in a nicer part of town than Mr. Cantor’s. Mr. Cantor confesses his doubts and fears to Dr. Steinberg—that the Italians were the ones who spread polio to Weequahic and that perhaps he should close the playground. Dr. Steinburg comforts him by saying the best thing he can do is continue to keep the children free of fear. Mr. Cantor asks Dr. Steinberg for Marcia’s hand in marriage, and Dr. Steinberg happily accepts.
But the next day at the playground completely rattles Mr. Cantor’s confidence in himself. An altercation between one of the playground boys and a mentally handicapped man from the neighborhood exposes the deep current of fear and panic that runs through everyone. In his mind Mr. Cantor succumbs to the terror of the epidemic:
The neighborhood is doomed. Not a one of the children will survive intact, if they survive at all.
That night Mr. Cantor surprises both Marcia and himself when he impulsively tells Marcia that he will quit the job as playground director at join her at the camp in the Poconos. After hanging up the phone, Mr. Cantor regrets his decision as a violation of his ideals: “ideals of truthfulness and strength...ideals of courage and sacrifice.” When he tells his supervisor he is quitting, Mr. Cantor experiences even more guilt but does not recant. Three days later he makes the journey to Pennsylvania and Camp Indian Hill.
(The entire section is 1,140 words.)