Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Nemesis, by Philip Roth

I just finished reading Philip Roth’s 2010 novel Nemesis. It’s an excellent book. It’s a short novel, but one that packs a powerful punch. It tells the story of Eugene “Bucky” Cantor, a 23-year-old playground director in Newark, New Jersey, during a polio epidemic in 1944. Bucky, who is a star athlete despite his short stature, is classified 4-F and thus ineligible for the draft because of his bad eyesight. He is sitting on the sidelines while his college buddies are off fighting, and this greatly distresses Bucky. He takes some refuge in the fact that he is running the playground the best way he knows how to, and he is trying to keep the kids happy and healthy while the stifling summer heat and polio take their toll on the Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic. Some of the kids who come to the playground every day are stricken with polio, and one boy dies. This seemingly random tragedy leads Bucky to question his faith in God.

“…he himself hadn’t dared to turn against God for taking his grandfather when the old man reached a timely age to die. But for killing Alan with polio at twelve? For the very existence of polio? How could there be forgiveness-let alone hallelujahs-in the face of such lunatic cruelty?” (p.75)

The city panics as the polio epidemic gets worse. Bucky gets an offer to join his girlfriend, Marcia Steinberg, at a summer camp in the Poconos as a swimming director. He goes back and forth about taking the job, worried that he is abandoning his kids at the playground. He visits Marcia’s father, a doctor, who tells him that he has been doing everything he can for the kids at the playground. Feeling better, Bucky spontaneously asks Dr. Steinberg for Marcia’s hand in marriage. Dr. Steinberg says that he would be thrilled to have Bucky join the family. Bucky decides to leave Newark and take the job in the Poconos. Camp Indian Hill is idyllic, an escape from both the oppressive heat and also the constant threat of polio. Bucky quickly strikes up a rapport with Donald Kaplow, a seventeen-year-old counselor at the camp. Bucky helps Donald with his diving skills. Bucky also has late-night trysts with Marcia, as they paddle out to an island in the middle of the lake and make love. Things couldn’t be better.

Which is, of course, when things start going to hell. Bucky is wracked with guilt over his decision to abandon the playground in Newark. He learns that just a few days after he left the city closed all of the playgrounds. However, this does nothing to assuage his feelings of guilt at having left Newark.

“If only he’d stayed, he would never have had to walk out on his kids and look back for a lifetime at his inexcusable act.” (p.194)

Bucky gets snappish with Marcia when she tells him that she prayed he would be safe from polio. He turns her simple statement into a theological argument, asking her:

“Why didn’t God answer the prayers of Alan Michaels’s parents? They must have prayed. Herbie Steinmark’s parents must have prayed. They’re good people. They’re good Jews. Why didn’t God intervene for them? Why didn’t He save their boys?” (p.170)

Polio finally enters Camp Indian Hill as well, as Donald Kaplow is stricken with it. Bucky is convinced that he is the one who brought polio to Indian Hill, even though there’s absolutely no evidence to support that. The camp doctor tells Bucky he can have a spinal tap performed to see if he has polio, as changes to spinal fluid are indicative of polio. The test comes back positive. Bucky has polio. The novel then fast-forwards a bit, as we learn that Bucky spends more than a year in the hospital, slowly and painfully recovering from his crippling illness, which leaves him with weakened legs.

Nemesis, though it is told from Bucky’s point of view, is actually narrated by Arnie Mesnikoff, who was a child at the playground that Bucky was the director of. Arnie contracted polio in the summer of 1944, and was confined to a wheelchair for a year as he learned how to walk again, with the help of crutches and braces. In 1971 Arnie runs into Bucky in Newark, and they start eating lunch together once a week as Bucky tells him the story of the summer of 1944. Bucky has become a bitter shell of a man, blaming God for his misfortunes. He let Marcia slip away by refusing to let her see him when he was in the hospital. And the one time she did come to see him, he quarreled with her. He says,

“’I didn’t want to ruin her life. She hadn’t fallen in love with a cripple, and she shouldn’t be stuck with one.’” (p.254-55)

Marcia fires back at Bucky,

“’You’re always holding yourself accountable when you’re not. Either it’s terrible God who is accountable, or it’s terrible Bucky Cantor who is accountable, when in fact, accountability belongs to neither. Your attitude toward God-it’s juvenile, it’s just plain silly.” (p.260)

Marcia is exactly right. Bucky presumes that God is responsible for everything bad that happens in the world. But whether or not there is a God does not change the fact that suffering exists. Blaming all of your suffering on God, as Bucky does, does not do anything to change the situation. Whether you think it’s the work of God or simply terrible luck, it’s something that is out of your control. Pain and suffering and unfairness all exist in the world regardless of whether or not there is a God. You have to accept the fact that suffering and misery exist, and Bucky seems unable or unwilling to do this. He is in denial. He’s essentially asking, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” There is no rhyme or reason for why bad things happen to good people. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that terrible things will happen to very good, totally undeserving people.

As Arnie says,

“Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not. Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance-the tyranny of contingency-is everything. Chance is what I believed Mr. Cantor meant when he was decrying what he called God.” (p.243)

Bucky gets a job at the Post Office and settles into a solitary life, bereft of companionship. Arnie was able to overcome his polio in a way that Bucky wasn’t.

“I learned that back there in Weequahic in 1944 I’d lived through a summerlong social tragedy that didn’t have to be a lifelong personal tragedy too.” (p.269)

This is the difference between Bucky and Arnie. Bucky has allowed himself to be destroyed by tragedy, whereas Arnie has moved on with his life. Which begs the question, why do some people survive tragedy and others do not? Life can do terrible things to people. It can deal you a rotten hand from the beginning, or it can buffer you with blows that few people can withstand. And yet there are some people who survive, who keep going in the face of terrible tragedy. It’s probably personality that accounts for why some people can survive tragedy and some people cannot. Surviving tragedy certainly isn’t easy to do, and Arnie admits that it took him some difficult years to arrive at the point we find him in 1971. But if you stay stuck in the past as Bucky does, you run the risk of letting that tragedy define your life. Arnie contrasts Bucky with the most famous victim of polio, the President of the United States in 1944, FDR. Bucky remained mired in the past, obsessing over what he could have done differently. FDR, after contracting polio at age 39 in 1921, became the Governor of New York and the country’s only four-term President. FDR never walked again. He never regained the full use of his legs. But did he consider himself a failure? I don’t think so. He was a man full of optimism, and for him, every day was probably a small victory against a disease that had left him disabled.

Roth’s writing throughout Nemesis is sharp and vivid as he brings Newark in 1944 to life. Roth has an eye for details, and his sentences are very well-crafted, which is why I have used so many quotations from the book. Because Roth lived through the years of polio epidemics, and was about the same age as the kids on the playground in 1944, this subject must have struck a chord with him. Polio is a word from the distant past for someone of my generation, but it must have been a truly frightening childhood fear back in the 1940’s. The only other Philip Roth book I’ve read is the short novel Goodbye, Columbus, which won him the National Book Award in 1960. It’s been more than 10 years since I read Goodbye, Columbus, which means I should probably re-read it. Nemesis is a great book, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Philip Roth.

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