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Monday, 1 April 2013


Reading Philip Roth is a pleasure. He has been doing this so long now, writing intricate, beautiful stories, he could probably do it in his sleep. He is an effortlessly poetic writer, gets directly to the core of characters' motivations and feelings, and draws you in and in to his narratives without you even realizing it.    

Roth was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, and many of his novels, including this one, Nemesis, are set there. This story returns to the Newark of Roth's youth, like The Plot Against America, his novel from 2004.

The action revolves around the polio epidemic that swept through the north-eastern United States in the forties. We learn about the progression of the disease, from a few isolated cases, to tens, then hundreds of effected. At this time there was no clear idea why or how polio spread, and its progression seemed to be simply random, though it did mainly attack children.

The action takes place during the summer, a sweltering, boiling one in Newark. This is one of the novel's strengths, you can almost feel the heat, it practically comes up off the page as Roth describes the heatwave, the constant sweating, the oppressive sun, the massive desire to escape. "The sun was so hot," Roth writes, "that you would think that rather than darkening your bare skin it would bleach you of all color before cremating you on the spot."

In the midst of this inferno, we meet the central character, Bucky Cantor, a teacher and playground coordinator, who knows many of the children who are afflicted by the dreaded polio. It is through his eyes that we experience the stifling summer and then the epidemic as it sweeps through the Jewish community of Newark, killing and paralysing kids as it goes, as devastating in its own way as the World War that is going on at the same time.

The novel is in large part a character study of Bucky. The fact that his father was convicted of fraud when Bucky was young makes him into a person who strives for the opposite, someone who demands integrity and honour from himself in everything. Bucky has an exaggerated sense of duty, and this is key as the epidemic grows worse and he escapes Newark by going to work in a summer camp, where the heat is much less than in the city, and the pristine landscape is polio-free.

The novel then moves towards a kind of climax, and it is sickening in its horrible inevitability. The end is devastating, like a smack in the face. There is a clash between Bucky's view of the world, his instinct is to see an agent or perpetrator behind the epidemic - his bitterness at God, who he blames - and the view of the narrator. This narrator - who, it turns out, is one of the kids, now grown, who was hit by polio in Newark - prefers to emphasize the role of blind, meaningless chance for how our lives turn out. And we see that this is clearly true, there is no rhyme or reason to the progression of the disease, it takes fit and healthy people as much as the young or weak.

This is a wonderful, affecting, powerful book. It is Philip Roth at his best.

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