Philip Roth’s most recent novel, “Nemesis”, is set in Newark, New Jersey in the summer of 1944. Far away in Europe, the war is on, heading towards an Allied Victory, while back in the hot, exhausted suburb of Weequahic, a battle of an equally deadly nature is taking place. A polio epidemic breaks out, ravaging the close-knit Jewish community, killing the young boys who gather each day to play sport, during their long school holidays.
The playground supervisor, and the hero of the novel, is 23 year old Bucky Cantor. Bucky is young, an accomplished athlete, but with such poor eyesight that he was rejected for army service. This failure to do what he perceives to be his duty, is one of the leitmotivs running through the book, which takes an uncompromising look at ethics and morality and duty. Bucky looks after his young charges with devotion, and is devastated at the deaths of the very children he feels he should be protecting.
Bucky’s girl friend Marcia pleads with him to leave the torrid summer heat and the polio epidemic, and join her at a summer camp where she is a counsellor, and after much agonising, Bucky agrees to go. He is torn between duty and love – and love wins.
The contrast between the hot dusty dangerous suburb and the clean, cool mountain air is intoxicating and Bucky is initially euphoric. And he is, after all, a young man in love. He is not only in love with Marcia, but with her entire loving family, who happily and noisily accept him into their midst.
All seems perfect.
Until polio follows him to the cool hills, and yet again his charges start dying.
Bucky is a tragic figure, as he struggles with his conscience and his heart, and the outcome will affect him for the rest of his life.
“Nemesis” is published by Jonathan Cape and the hardback costs £16.99