Mini-review: Nemesis, by Philip Roth

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Nemesis is a novel by Philip Roth, one of the great American writers of the 20th and early 21st century. It was published in 2010, but the experience of reading it now is eerie, given the obvious (if unintended by the author) echoes of the covid pandemic.

The story is set in 1944 New Jersey, during a summer that saw the prelude to the end of World War II in Europe, the continuation of the Pacific war against Japan, and an outbreak of polio – just a few years before the vaccine was developed. (Beware, several spoilers coming up!)

The main character, Bucky Cantor, could not join the army – much to his regret – because of his poor eyesight. Recently graduated from college, he is employed for the summer as playground director in Newark, NJ. He has a strong sense of duty and a sturdy moral compass, instilled in him by his grandfather, with whom he grew up.

But the kids frequenting the playground start getting sick and dying of polio, and Bucky is impotent about it. Finally his fiancee finds him a job out of town, in a campground in the Poconos, in Pennsylvania. There Bucky could have everything: spend time with his soon to be wife, work with kids, and be safe from polio. He hesitates because of his guilt about abandoning the children he was supervising in Newark, but finally takes the job. Unfortunately, the polio follows him to the mountains, eventually getting to him as well.

I will not write about how the last section of the book unfolds because it is well worth reading it on your own. Be prepared for a really tough scene between Bucky and his fiancee, as well as for a heavy dose of great food for philosophical fought, courtesy of a conversation about that fateful summer that Bucky has many years later with a guy who had been one of the children he had supervised back in Newark. The fellow in question had also been struck by polio, but his life then took a sharply divergent trajectory from Bucky’s.

Nemesis is a striking piece of writing by Roth, one that will remain with you for a long time, and that will give you quite a bit to think about. You will never see the current covid pandemic in the same way.

Published by

Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at platofootnote.org and howtobeastoic.org. He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

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