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3.0 74
by Philip Roth

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In the "stifling heat of equatorial Newark," a terrifying epidemic is raging, threatening the children of the New Jersey city with maiming, paralysis, lifelong disability, and even death. This is the startling theme of Philip Roth’s wrenching new book: a wartime polio epidemic in the summer of 1944 and the effect it has on a closely knit, family-oriented


In the "stifling heat of equatorial Newark," a terrifying epidemic is raging, threatening the children of the New Jersey city with maiming, paralysis, lifelong disability, and even death. This is the startling theme of Philip Roth’s wrenching new book: a wartime polio epidemic in the summer of 1944 and the effect it has on a closely knit, family-oriented Newark community and its children.

At the center of Nemesis is a vigorous, dutiful twenty-three-year-old playground director, Bucky Cantor, a javelin thrower and weightlifter, who is devoted to his charges and disappointed with himself because his weak eyes have excluded him from serving in the war alongside his contemporaries. Focusing on Cantor’s dilemmas as polio begins to ravage his playground—and on the everyday realities he faces—Roth leads us through every inch of emotion such a pestilence can breed: the fear, the panic, the anger, the bewilderment, the suffering, and the pain.

Moving between the smoldering, malodorous streets of besieged Newark and Indian Hill, a pristine children’s summer camp high in the Poconos—whose "mountain air was purified of all contaminants"—Roth depicts a decent, energetic man with the best intentions struggling in his own private war against the epidemic. Roth is tenderly exact at every point about Cantor’s passage into personal disaster, and no less exact about the condition of childhood.

Through this story runs the dark questions that haunt all four of Roth’s late short novels, Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and now Nemesis: What kind of accidental choices fatally shape a life? How does the individual withstand the onslaught of circumstance?

Editorial Reviews

On the "Books by" pages in Philip Roth's books, he likes to group his titles, often by their lead characters. There are the Zuckerman books, with Nathan Zuckerman leading a long quest to know both his own heart and that of his country (and these themselves grouped, with the first four, from 1979 to 1983, as a quartet; American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain, from 1998 to 2000, as a trilogy; and The Counterlife, from 1986, and Exit Ghost, from 2007, floating on their own). There are the three Kepesh books, with the increasingly curdling, unknowing David Kepesh; and Roth books, with Roth himself as a fictional character (even in The Facts, which suspends its subtitled premise as A Novelist's Autobiography when at the end Nathan Zuckerman shows up to urge Roth not to publish it). There are Miscellany (criticism and reflection) and Other books, which include some of the most memorable: Portnoy's Complaint (1969), The Great American Novel (1973), and Sabbath's Theater (1995).

Up until now, Other is where the very short novels Roth has been publishing since 2006 -- starting with Everyman, then Indignation (2008), and, at about 25,000 words, the very, very short The Humbling (2009) -- were placed. With Nemesis, the four books are placed together, as Nemeses, and that is how they should be read: as a wildly varied single work, even if the group title is, for me, misleading. "Nemeses" implies different nagging, ever-present, elusive, daunting, and finally indefinable and even unbeatable enemies that one must struggle against nevertheless. As I read, death is the single nemesis in these books, one after the other, even if in Nemesis Bucky Cantor is there at the end to tell his story -- the story of a life given up to death many years before.

Those who seek to pin a novelist's every offering to his or her real life -- mining for nuggets of what people who fundamentally mistrust fiction can take as merely disguised but fact-checkable autobiographical truth, or in some way paralleling the writer's status in life as a book appears -- will not find satisfaction here. Everyman, set after the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, concerns the slow, almost mechanical death of an unnamed seventy-one-year-old man from Elizabeth, New Jersey, who survives a torment of surgeries and replacements until, finally, he doesn't. Well, with the lack of a name allowing the hero, or victim, to be everyman, or one man in particular, you could have read that as the author's working out of his own fears of inexorable diminishment if you liked. Written in the third person, the book is stolid, mechanical, banal, and unconvincing -- jerry-built. It's as if the form -- the telling of a whole life as it crumbles, in not very many pages, an argument finally that at its end almost any life can feel as if it is caught up short, and thus can be caught short -- defeated the writer. But then with Indignation, Marcus Messner of Newark is a sophomore at a small college in Ohio -- or rather was, as he is telling his story from beyond a very recent grave -- and Roth is speeding the tale on winds of glee, fury, rebellion, laughter, and confusion (" -- because I was a Jew, because I wasn't an engineering student, because I wasn't a fraternity boy, because I wasn't interested in tinkering with car engines or manning tugboats, because I wasn't whatever else I wasn't -- ") that haven't been at his back since Portnoy's Complaint.

Only a year later in publishing time, with The Humbling, set in the publishing present, there is Simon Axler, a renowned dramatic actor in his sixties recently abandoned by his wife, overwhelmed by an all but absolute suicidal depression, then rescuing himself with an affair with a forty-year-old lesbian, an affair he convinces himself will last the rest of his life and make it new every day. Again written in the third person, the book is warm, desperate, passionate, funny, with the man and the woman springing to life in a few sentences and then sent on their way. The story goes to sexual extremes -- extremes that quickly reveal one life to the man and another to the woman. But her new life is real and his is a fantasy, and so he returns himself to real life with the reality that can't be gainsaid; as he was about to do when the novel began, he kills himself. There is no hint that it was anybody else's fault. There was a truer rescue hidden in the story, but he couldn't see it -- or rather there was another woman in the story, no older than the woman he fell in love with, but he was not attracted to her, and without that, the hidden rescue is just the reader's fantasy, and the novelist's proof that, as Axler says early on to a doctor, "Nothing has a good reason for happening."

With Nemesis Roth leaps back again, to Newark in 1944, in the summer, polio season -- but this year, the worst outbreak of polio in a lifetime, and long before there was even a glimpse of a vaccine. The fact of the eradication of polio, an affliction unknown in the lifetime of most Americans now, only makes Roth's recreation of the disease all but horror-movie immediate: unstoppable, unpredictable, unknowable, evading diagnosis until it is too late, with cases spreading through a neighborhood by the hour and children dead overnight or consigned to an iron lung for the rest of their lives (and what is an iron lung, any reader might have to ask, only to find out, and then be horrified at how polio could redefine everyday life?).

Bucky Cantor, excluded from the Army because of his bad eyesight, is a young playground director at a Newark public school. He comes burdened with stones: his mother died in childbirth, his father was a convicted felon, he was raised by his mother's parents, and as the story opens his grandfather, a rock, is three years dead. Bucky -- the nickname his grandfather gave him when, working in the family store as a boy, he showed guts, quick sense, pluck, bravery -- has disciplined himself for life. A career as a public school teacher is as noble a calling as he can conceive -- and as it is a noble calling, it will demand everything he can give. He can never surrender to fear, temptation, sloth, pleasure, doubt. As we meet him it is easy to believe that he won't.

"Mr. Cantor had been twenty and a college junior when the U.S. Pacific Fleet was bombed and nearly destroyed in the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941," reads an early passage, and any reader might ask -- why are you telling us all this? Even if I don't remember polio, I've heard of Pearl Harbor. From this point on the same page, the sentences descend steadily, doggedly, like steps, one piece of information after the other, and you wonder, why is this going so slowly?

It's not just that Roth has changed speeds again, and again changed the way the story is being told -- it reads so fully as a third-person narrative that the reader can altogether forget that there is a hint in the book's second sentence that this is not so, and be utterly surprised when, at the end, the narrator steps forward to seal the tale. Rather information is being pieced out slowly so that the reader experiences how the events in the story were received as they happened: as explosions that no one -- no matter how loud or quiet each event's arrival, whether Pearl Harbor or an epidemic's first death -- could have imagined as the all-consuming cataclysms they would become. As polio spreads through the Weequahic district of Newark where Cantor's playground is, he visits his mother's grave, and remembers a story his grandmother told him, about a day when she brought home live carp to make gefilte fish, keeping "them alive in the tin tub that the family used for taking baths."

One day when Mr. Cantor's mother was five years old, she'd come bounding up the stairs after kindergarten, found the fish swimming in the tub, and after quickly removing her clothes, got into the tub to play with them. His grandmother found her there when she came up from the store to fix her an afternoon snack. They never told his grandfather what the child had done for fear that he might punish her for it. Even when the little boy was told about the fish by his grandmother -- he was then himself in kindergarten -- he was cautioned to keep the story a secret so as not to upset his grandfather, who, in the first years after his cherished daughter's death, was able to deflect the anguish of losing her only by never speaking of her.

This is a moment not only of peace and surcease -- it is a moment where a life that once seemed real is slipping into the past, from where it can never be retrieved. Not because it will disappear from memory, but because such a secret, wrapped in love and cruelty -- the way the genteel, even greeting-card prose of "his cherished daughter's death" is ambushed, really killed, by "never speaking of her" -- is precisely what life is now taking away. As the hammer begins to come down, one blow after another, nothing can be kept secret. Everybody knows which house, which playground, which summer camp, which cabin, harbors illness, contagion, and death. The past is meaningless: these deaths are not the wages of any sin. Only the future matters, and the future is measured in days that, in an inversion of the commonplace blues couplet, seem like hours, in hours that seem like minutes.

Nemesis is never predictable. There is a sex scene between Cantor and Marcia Steinberg, his fiancée, on a wooded island in the lake of the summer camp where Cantor goes at the height of the epidemic, that -- like the sex scene between Jack and Anne in Robert Penn Warren's 1946 All the King's Men -- in its demureness is in literary terms so purely of the time in which it is set, and thus with all that is barely allowed to happen so thrilling, that you can imagine the joy Roth might have felt pulling it off, and for the moment pulling away from the nothing-left-out sex scene that upends The Humbling. But even more unpredictable is Bucky Cantor as -- testing against an invisible enemy all those qualities in which he steeled himself as a boy and a young man -- his presence on the page grows smaller and smaller, and the reader begins to cease to trust him.

Bucky Cantor is not very smart. For all of his self-inculcated virtues, he cannot make himself more intelligent than he is. Thinking demands doubt; Bucky Cantor cannot tolerate it. Every decision he makes he makes in a kind of self-lacerating, self-righteous panic, where there are only absolutes of courage and weakness, and the reader begins to shrink in disgust, or movie-goer refusal (No! They were made for each other! It can't end this way!), as Bucky's embrace of Marcia turns into self-abnegation, and all that is left of his life is pride, and here that sin really is the wages of death.

Whether or not these short novels continue to occupy Roth, under the rubric of Nemeses or not, when one reads them as of a piece, two qualities in particular stand out. One is playfulness -- the creation of a field of fiction where one can play with narrators and historical time, where one can create characters and allow them to find their own ends. The other is generosity, or affection, or love.

Reading Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, one can be overwhelmed by the contempt of a writer for his characters: by his proof in almost every sentence, as one person after another is introduced to the reader as a small figure of vanity, smugness, stupidity, venality, or pettiness, of his superiority to his characters. Roth is not incapable of this: there is Delphine Roux in The Human Stain. But in his Nemeses books he not only follows his characters with empathy, as if absorbing their pain as he crafts it; in a way that speaks for the queer and implacable anonymity of the voice behind each of the books, Roth does not look down on his characters, he looks up to them.

--Greil Marcus

Publishers Weekly
Roth continues his string of small, anti-Horatio Alger novels (The Humbling; etc.) with this underwhelming account of Bucky Cantor, the young playground director of the Chancellor Avenue playground in 1944 Newark. When a polio outbreak ravages the kids at the playground, Bucky, a hero to the boys, becomes spooked and gives in to the wishes of his fiancée, who wants him to take a job at the Pocono summer camp where she works. But this being a Roth novel, Bucky can't hide from his fate. Fast-forward to 1971, when Arnie Mesnikoff, the subtle narrator and one of the boys from Chancellor, runs into Bucky, now a shambles, and hears the rest of his story of piercing if needless guilt, bad luck, and poor decisions. Unfortunately, Bucky's too simple a character to drive the novel, and the traits that make him a good playground director--not very bright, quite polite, beloved, straight thinking--make him a lackluster protagonist. For Roth, it's surprisingly timid. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"NEMESIS presents a revelation as startling as the discovery of a planet or the alignment of a new constellation... Nemesis could be the darkest novel Roth has written and ranks with the most provocative."— Kirkus Reviews, starred

"The fourth in the great and undiminished Roth's recent cycle of short novels follows Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008), and The Humbling (2009), and as exceptional as those novels are, this latest in the series far exceeds its predecessors in both emotion and intellect." —Booklist, starred Book of the Day, 7/22

"Roth, one of our greatest American writers, is unrivaled in his mastery at evoking mid-20th- century New Jersey, but it's the thoughtful examination of the toll guilt takes on the psyche, the futility of raging against God or Fate, and the danger of turning blame inward that give this short novel its power." — Library Journal, starred, August 2010

"Yet another small triumph, and by small I mean in length....This dual portrait, of a neighborhood and of a man quite representative of the times when trouble struck his neighborhood with lethal force, gives this new novel a singular appeal." - Alan Cheuse, All Things Considered and Chicago Tribune, Oct. 5

"Roth's book has the elegance of a fable and the tragic inevitability of a Greek drama." - The New Yorker, Oct. 18

"like a very well-executed O. Henry story, a parable about the embrace of conscience... and what its suffocating, life-denying consequences can be."—Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

"Set mostly in Newark in 1944 and suffused with tenderness, Roth's novel tells the story of a military reject, a young phys ed teacher, who turns a polio out-break into his own patriotic battleground."—New York Times Book Review, Editor's Choice, Oct. 17

"Philip Roth has done it again! For his 32nd book, America’s outstanding writer has once again demonstrated his mastery of the short novel with his newest contribution, Nemesis. This achievement is especially noteworthy since Roth is now 77 years old, but advanced age has not dimmed his unusual capacity to engage and delight his readers." - The Jewish Chronicle

"Moving....A sad beauty is found in Roth's details and descripions...Nemesis is painful and powerful."—Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

Library Journal
During the summer of 1944, young men like Bucky Cantor needed good reason not to be fighting overseas. Though he had bad eyesight, was the sole support of his grandmother, and was the best phys ed teacher Newark's Chancellor Avenue School ever saw, Bucky's guilt informed his life that long, hot summer and forever changed its trajectory. With an incredible eye for historical detail, Roth paints a vivid picture of the polio epidemic that hit the Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic on the Fourth of July weekend, pitting ignorance against science, neighbor against neighbor, and fear against common sense. Bucky excels at his job, keeping the kids active and naively believing that he can personally hold the disease at bay. But as one child after another falls ill, he loses faith in God even as he obsesses over the chance to join his girlfriend, Marcia, in the Poconos. VERDICT Roth, one of our greatest American writers, is unrivaled in his mastery at evoking mid-20th-century New Jersey, but it's the thoughtful examination of the toll guilt takes on the psyche, the futility of raging against God or Fate, and the danger of turning blame inward that give this short novel its power. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/10.]—Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib., Ft. Myers, FL
Kirkus Reviews

For those who monitor the growing list of books by Philip Roth, his forthcoming, Nemesis, presents a revelation as startling as the discovery of a planet or the alignment of a new constellation.

The top of the list remains reassuringly familiar: "Zuckerman Books" (those featuring Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's alter ego), "Roth Books" (another alter ego, "Philip Roth," in a category that includes fiction and nonfiction alike) and "Kepesh Books" (another serial protagonist who may or may not be an alter ego).

But then there is an emergent category: "Nemeses: Short Fiction," which encompasses four recent novels, including the new one. What this means to the ardent Roth reader is that three works previously considered unrelated—Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008) and The Humbling (2009), formerly scattered at the list's bottom with some of his earliest efforts as "Other Books," are now connected. And Nemesis provides the key to that connection.

A little longer than the other three, Nemesis could be the darkest novel Roth has written and ranks with the most provocative. It's a parable of innocence lost in the author's native Newark, where polio threatens a neighborhood that is already sacrificing young men to World War II. The protagonist is Bucky Cantor, a 23-year-old playground director, who has seen his best friends enlist in the war while he was rejected for poor eyesight.

Instead, "Mr. Cantor" (as his charges call him) finds himself facing a more insidious enemy. "No medicine existed to treat the disease and no vaccine to produce immunity...(it) could befall anyone, for no apparent reason," writes Roth. It arrives without warning, and it changes everything. If anything, it was scarier than cancer or AIDS is now.

Narrating the story is one of polio's victims, though he barely emerges as a character until the novel's epiphany. Until then, Roth lets the reader wonder how a narrator named only in passing could penetrate the protagonist's mind and relate a series of incidents that the narrator couldn't have witnessed.

As Bucky's boys succumb to the disease, temptation lures him from the city to what appears to be a safe oasis, an idyllic summer camp where his girlfriend works. Yet his conscience (already plagued by his 4-F status) pays the price for his escape, an escape that might prove illusory.

What is Bucky's nemesis? Maybe polio. Maybe God, "who made the virus," who kills children with "lunatic cruelty." Maybe mortality—death and the decay that precedes it, the ravages of time that distinguish man from God.

But maybe Bucky's nemeses include Bucky himself—a layer of meaning that makes this novel something other than another retelling of Job and forces the reader to reconsider the previously published "Nemeses" in fresh light. For it is within these short novels that Roth tackles nothing less than the human condition, which finds its nemesis in the mirror.

Leah Hager Cohen
…stands out for its warmth…suffused with precise and painful tenderness…Given its pall of war and disease, Nemesis is surprisingly dense with happiness—a happiness that's ever-tenuous, and the sweeter for it…The architecture of Roth's sentences is almost invisibly elegant; not only doesn't one notice the art, one barely notices the sentence, registering instead pure function: meaning, rhythm, intent. Is it impertinent to suggest Roth outdoes himself here by getting out of his own way? This short book has all his brilliance, minus the bluster.
—The New York Times

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Equatorial Newark
The first case of polio that summer came early in June, right after Memorial Day, in a poor Italian neighborhood crosstown from where we lived. Over in the city's southwestern corner, in the Jewish Weequahic section, we heard nothing about it, nor did we hear anything about the next dozen cases scattered singly throughout Newark in nearly every neighborhood but ours. Only by the Fourth of July, when there were already forty cases reported in the city, did an article appear on the front page of the evening paper, titled "Health Chief Puts Parents on Polio Alert," in which Dr. William Kittell, superintendent of the Board of Health, was quoted as cautioning parents to monitor their children closely and to contact a physician if a child exhibited symptoms such as headache, sore throat, nausea, stiff neck, joint pain, or fever. Though Dr. Kittell acknowledged that forty polio cases was more than twice as many as normally reported this early in the polio season, he wanted it clearly understood that the city of 429,000 was by no means suffering from what could be characterized as an epidemic of poliomyelitis. This summer as every summer, there was reason for concern and for the proper hygienic precautions to be taken, but there was as yet no cause for the sort of alarm that had been displayed by parents, "justifiably enough," twenty-eight years earlier, during the largest outbreak of the disease ever reported-the 1916 polio epidemic in the northeastern United States, when there had been more than 27,000 cases, with 6,000 deaths. In Newark there had been 1,360 cases and 363 deaths.
 Now even in a year with an average number of cases, when the chances of contracting polio were much reduced from what they'd been back in 1916, a paralytic disease that left a youngster permanently disabled and deformed or unable to breathe outside a cylindrical metal respirator tank known as an iron lung-or that could lead from paralysis of the respiratory muscles to death-caused the parents in our neighborhood considerable apprehension and marred the peace of mind of children who were free of school for the summer months and able to play outdoors all day and into the long twilit evenings. Concern for the dire consequences of falling seriously ill from polio was compounded by the fact that no medicine existed to treat the disease and no vaccine to produce immunity. Polio-or infantile paralysis, as it was called when the disease was thought to infect mainly toddlers-could befall anyone, for no apparent reason. Though children up to sixteen were usually the sufferers, adults too could become severely infected, as had the current president of the United States.
 Franklin Delano Roosevelt, polio's most renowned victim, had contracted the disease as a vigorous man of thirty-nine and subsequently had to be supported when he walked and, even then, had to wear heavy steel-and-leather braces from his hips to his feet to enable him to stand. The charitable institution that FDR founded while he was in the White House, the March of Dimes, raised money for research and for financial assistance to the families of the stricken; though partial or even full recovery was possible, it was often only after months or years of expensive hospital therapy and rehabilitation. During the annual fund drive, America's young donated their dimes at school to help in the fight against the disease, they dropped their dimes into collection cans passed around by ushers in movie theaters, and posters announcing "You Can Help, Too!" and "Help Fight Polio!" appeared on the walls of stores and offices and in the corridors of schools across the country, posters of children in wheelchairs-a pretty little girl wearing leg braces shyly sucking her thumb, a clean-cut little boy with leg braces heroically smiling with hope-posters that made the possibility of getting the disease seem all the more frighteningly real to otherwise healthy children.
 Summers were steamy in low-lying Newark, and because the city was partially ringed by extensive wetlands-a major source of malaria back when that, too, was an unstoppable disease-there were swarms of mosquitoes to be swatted and slapped away whenever we sat on beach chairs in the alleys and driveways at night, seeking refuge out of doors from our sweltering flats, where there was nothing but a cold shower and ice water to mitigate the hellish heat. This was before the advent of home air conditioning, when a small black electric fan, set on a table to stir up a breeze indoors, offered little relief once the temperature reached the high nineties, as it did repeatedly that summer for stretches of a week or ten days. Outdoors, people lit citronella candles and sprayed with cans of the insecticide Flit to keep at bay the mosquitoes and flies that were known to have carried malaria, yellow fever, and typhoid fever and were believed by many, beginning with Newark's Mayor Drummond, who launched a citywide "Swat the Fly" campaign, to carry polio. When a fly or a mosquito managed to penetrate the screens of a family's flat or fly in through an open door, the insect would be doggedly hunted down with fly swatter and Flit out of fear that by alighting with its germ-laden legs on one of the household's sleeping children it would infect the youngster with polio. Since nobody then knew the source of the contagion, it was possible to grow suspicious of almost anything, including the bony alley cats that invaded our backyard garbage cans and the haggard stray dogs that slinked hungrily around the houses and defecated all over the sidewalk and street and the pigeons that cooed in the gables of the houses and dirtied front stoops with their chalky droppings. In the first month of the outbreak-before it was acknowledged as an epidemic by the Board of Health-the sanitation department set about systematically to exterminate the city's huge population of alley cats, even though no one knew whether they had any more to do with polio than domesticated house cats.
 What people did know was that the disease was highly contagious and might be passed to the healthy by mere physical proximity to those already infected. For this reason, as the number of cases steadily mounted in the city-and communal fear with it-many children in our neighborhood found themselves prohibited by their parents from using the big public pool at Olympic Park in nearby Irvington, forbidden to go to the local "air-cooled" movie theaters, and forbidden to take the bus downtown or to travel Down Neck to Wilson Avenue to see our minor league team, the Newark Bears, play baseball at Ruppert Stadium. We were warned not to use public toilets or public drinking fountains or to swig a drink out of someone else's soda-pop bottle or to get a chill or to play with strangers or to borrow books from the public library or to talk on a public pay phone or to buy food from a street vendor or to eat until we had cleaned our hands thoroughly with soap and water. We were to wash all fruit and vegetables before we ate them, and we were to keep our distance from anyone who looked sick or complained of any of polio's telltale symptoms.
 Escaping the city's heat entirely and being sent off to a summer camp in the mountains or the countryside was considered a child's best protection against catching polio. So too was spending the summer some sixty miles away at the Jersey Shore. A family who could afford it rented a bedroom with kitchen privileges in a rooming house in Bradley Beach, a strip of sand, boardwalk, and cottages a mile long that had already been popular for several decades among North Jersey Jews. There the mother and the children would go to the beach to breathe in the fresh, fortifying ocean air all week long and be joined on weekends and vacations by the father. Of course, cases of polio were known to crop up in summer camps as they did in the shore's seaside towns, but because they were nothing like as numerous as those reported back in Newark, it was widely believed that, whereas city surroundings, with their unclean pavements and stagnant air, facilitated contagion, settling within sight or sound of the sea or off in the country or up in the mountains afforded as good a guarantee as there was of evading the disease.
 So the privileged lucky ones disappeared from the city for the summer while the rest of us remained behind to do exactly what we shouldn't, given that "overexertion" was suspected of being yet another possible cause of polio: we played inning after inning and game after game of softball on the baking asphalt of the school playground, running around all day in the extreme heat, drinking thirstily from the forbidden water fountain, between innings seated on a bench crushed up against one another, clutching in our laps the well-worn, grimy mitts we used out in the field to mop the sweat off our foreheads and to keep it from running into our eyes-clowning and carrying on in our soaking polo shirts and our smelly sneakers, unmindful of how our imprudence might be dooming any one of us to lifelong incarceration in an iron lung and the realization of the body's most dreadful fears.
 Only a dozen or so girls ever appeared at the playground, mainly kids of eight or nine who could usually be seen jumping rope where far center field dropped off into a narrow school street closed to traffic. When the girls weren't jumping rope they used the street for hopscotch and running-bases and playing jacks or for happily bouncing a pink rubber ball at their feet all day long. Sometimes when the girls jumping rope played double dutch, twirling two ropes in opposite directions, one of the boys would rush up unbidden and, elbowing aside the girl who was about to jump, leap in and mockingly start bellowing the girls' favorite jumping song while deliberately entangling himself in their flying ropes. "H, my name is Hippopotamus—!" The girls would holler at him "Stop it! Stop it!" and call out for help from the playground director, who had only to shout from wherever he was on the playground to the troublemaker (most days it was the same boy), "Cut it out, Myron! Leave the girls alone or you're going home!" With that, the uproar subsided. Soon the jump ropes were once again snappily turning in the air and the chanting taken up anew by one jumper after another.


What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“Roth’s book has the elegance of a fable and the tragic inevitability of a Greek drama.”—The New Yorker

“An artfully constructed, suspenseful novel with a cunning twist towards the end.”—J. M. Coetzee, New York Review of Books

“Elegant. . . . Suffused with precise and painful tenderness. . . . Stands out for its warmth.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Painful and powerful. . . . Somberly but vividly, [Roth] recreates the panic and fear triggered by polio.” —USA Today

“A perfectly proportioned Greek tragedy played out against the background of the polio epidemic that swept Newark, New Jersey, during the summer of 1944.” —Financial Times
 “Like a very well-executed O. Henry story. . . . A parable about the embrace of conscience. . . .and what its suffocating, life-denying consequences can be.” –Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Yet another small triumph from one of our native artists largest in spirit. And by small I mean in length of the book. . . . This dual portrait, of a neighborhood and of a man quite representative of the times when trouble struck his neighborhood with lethal force, gives this new novel a singular appeal.” —Chicago Tribune
“Roth writes a lean, vigorous prose that burns with the intensity of his purpose. It flows smoothly even when he wrestles with the knottiest of philosophical problems.” —Plain Dealer
“Exquisite. It is utterly straightforward American realism that could almost have been written not long after Letting Go and Goodbye Columbus at the beginning of Roth’s career.” —Buffalo News
“Roth is all about character and how we are shaped by improbable circumstances, and here he offers up insight to match his many years on the job.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Grippingly and with documentary expertise, it tells a story set in the devastating 1944 polio epidemic. . . . Roth writes vividly of heat-choked streets and cramped houses.” —Boston Globe
“Classic Roth: handsomely written, historically evocative and brutally honest about human emotions. . . . Impressive.” —Richmond Times Dispatch
“Roth’s prose, that magnificent voice of his, has always fed off the twin passions of lust and rage.” —The New Republic
“Roth does an excellent job of conjuring up the fear that polio caused before the arrival of a vaccine. . . . Cantor is one of Roth’s best creations and the atmosphere of terror is masterfully fashioned.” —The Daily Telegraph (UK)
“Roth has always been terrific at rendering the times and places close to his own youth. And in Nemesis, he masterly contrasts the sweaty, close world of all-day ball games and nights spent on front stoops with affluence and young love developing in the cool countryside. . . . A quick, propulsive read full of chiseled storytelling.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Some of the most scathing and beautiful prose of our time.” —The Toronto Star
“Part of the appeal—and the strangeness—of Roth’s novel is the way that it renders this situation, with its seemingly undramatic topic and unlikely protagonist, without hyperbole, yet maintains a grasp on the tension and ethical drama.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)

Meet the Author

In 1997 Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House and in 2002 the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction, previously awarded to John Dos Passos, William Faulkner and Saul Bellow, among others. He has twice won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2005 The Plot Against America received the Society of American Historians’ prize for "the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003-2004" and the W.H. Smith Award for the Best Book of the Year, making Roth the first writer in the forty-six-year history of the prize to win it twice.

In 2005 Roth became the third living American writer to have his works published in a comprehensive, definitive edition by the Library of America. In 2011 he received the National Humanities Medal at the White House, and was later named the fourth recipient of the Man Booker International Prize. In 2012 he won Spain’s highest honor, the Prince of Asturias Award, and in 2013 he received France’s highest honor, Commander of the Legion of Honor.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
March 19, 1933
Place of Birth:
Newark, New Jersey
B.A. in English, Bucknell University, 1954; M.A. in English, University of Chicago, 1955

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Nemesis 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 73 reviews.
KenCady More than 1 year ago
I hate being the one to write the first review. I dread that others will come along later and point out how I didn't get the book at all, or I missed the important stuff. And a Phillip Roth novel- no reviews yet? Roth's new novel, Nemesis, is about a polio epidemic in 1944. The war is going on when suddenly young people throughout Newark are hit by polio. Roth befuddles me often as his books are either very appealing or a big turnoff to me. But Nemesis is magnificent. It brings the epidemic home, engages the reader as it both educates and infuriates, and the real Nemesis proves to be God, not polio. No, I didn't give anything away there as it is only my interpretation. But you will find yourself having many conversations with yourself when you put this short novel down.
radioguy More than 1 year ago
Mr. Ross is always worthwhile, but I feel this is one of his lesser achievements. I never really felt it went any where. It rather droned on and was lacking the thematic and narrative flare of his other works. Rather flat all around. A title in his minor catalog.
Sandito-Gordito More than 1 year ago
It appears to me that Mr Roth, in his old age of 78, has gotten into a position of putting out publications which are trashy in order to reap in great profits by depending on his past great works. This tale of about 130 pages devotes the first 100 pages to a somewhat interesting story which he drops like a hot potato. After the story somewhat ends at page 100, Roth uses the next 30 pages to sort of explain what and why the first 100 occured. It's as if Roth wrote the first hundred pages and decided that he had given enough of himself and then tried to close out in the next senseless 30 pages.
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