Kathy B.'s Reviews > Nemesis

Nemesis by Philip Roth
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Aug 17, 12

bookshelves: historical-fiction, polio
Read from August 13 to 15, 2012

I had just finished reading a non-fiction, memoir account of a polio victim, and I came across, to my surprise, a fictional book dealing with polio by Philip Roth. I was curious how it would stack up to the recent and other non-fiction books about polio that I'd read. Well, as with much historical-fiction, I feel as if I learned a great deal about the scourge that was polio and its affect on communities. Roth's protagonist, Bucky Cantor, is a 23-year-old college graduate who is a PE teacher and summertime playground director at Chancellor Avenue School in Newark, New Jersey. Bucky had a rough start in life, but he was fortunate to be raised by his hard-working, honest grandparents who believed Bucky could succeed. His poor eyesight kept him out of WWII, but his athleticism allowed him to be a leader for the boys on his playground that summer of 1944, the summer that Newark would suffer a terrifying polio outbreak. Bucky's best attribute is his devotion to helping others; his worst attribute is his taking responsibility for the blameless. His decision on whether to join his girlfriend in the Poconos as a summer camp counselor and leave the ravaged streets of Newark and his boys is a crisis of faith for Bucky. The fallout from that decision will determine the paths of many. As with the non-fiction titles about polio that I've read, I came away from Roth's slim novel with new and intriguing information about polio. Roth's masterful power of description greatly enhanced the experience of learning. My only real complaint about the novel is the narration format. It's not that I minded another character, other than Bucky, being the narrator, but that the character was alluded to in a rather thinly veiled reference early in the book and not clearly revealed until the last of the book. I would have preferred that the book opened up with an undisguised narrator. Having said that, I do think that Roth created an excellent venue to tell not only of the fear and horror of that summer of polio, but he created a character that revealed a struggle with perfection in an imperfect world.
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