Nemesis
Winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2011

In the "stifling heat of equatorial Newark," a terrifying epidemic is raging, threatening the children of the New Jersey city with maiming, paralysis, lifelong disability, and even death. This is the startling theme of Philip Roth’s wrenching new book: a wartime polio epidemic in the summer of 1944 and the effect it has on a closely knit, family-oriented Newark community and its children.

At the center of Nemesis is a vigorous, dutiful twenty-three-year-old playground director, Bucky Cantor, a javelin thrower and weightlifter, who is devoted to his charges and disappointed with himself because his weak eyes have excluded him from serving in the war alongside his contemporaries. Focusing on Cantor’s dilemmas as polio begins to ravage his playground—and on the everyday realities he faces—Roth leads us through every inch of emotion such a pestilence can breed: the fear, the panic, the anger, the bewilderment, the suffering, and the pain.

Moving between the smoldering, malodorous streets of besieged Newark and Indian Hill, a pristine children’s summer camp high in the Poconos—whose "mountain air was purified of all contaminants"—Roth depicts a decent, energetic man with the best intentions struggling in his own private war against the epidemic. Roth is tenderly exact at every point about Cantor’s passage into personal disaster, and no less exact about the condition of childhood.

Through this story runs the dark questions that haunt all four of Roth’s late short novels, Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and now Nemesis: What kind of accidental choices fatally shape a life? How does the individual withstand the onslaught of circumstance?

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  • Format: eBook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547504506

  • ISBN-10: 0547504500

  • Pages: 300

  • Price: $9.99

  • Publication Date: 10/05/2010

Philip Roth
Author

Philip Roth

PHILIP ROTH (1933–2018) won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral in 1997. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House and in 2002 the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction, previously awarded to John Dos Passos, William Faulkner and Saul Bellow, among others. He twice won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2005 The Plot Against America received the Society of American Historians' prize for "the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003–2004" and the W.H. Smith Award for the Best Book of the Year, making Roth the first writer in the forty-six-year history of the prize to win it twice.In 2005 Roth became the third living American writer to have his works published in a comprehensive, definitive edition by the Library of America. In 2011 he received the National Humanities Medal at the White House, and was later named the fourth recipient of the Man Booker International Prize. In 2012 he won Spain's highest honor, the Prince of Asturias Award, and in 2013 he received France's highest honor, Commander of the Legion of Honor.
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  • reviews
    "NEMESIS presents a revelation as startling as the discovery of a planet or the alignment of a new constellation... Nemesis could be the darkest novel Roth has written and ranks with the most provocative." -- Kirkus Reviews, starred

    "The fourth in the great and undiminished Roth's recent cycle of short novels follows Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008), and The Humbling (2009), and as exceptional as those novels are, this latest in the series far exceeds its predecessors in both emotion and intellect." --Booklist, starred Book of the Day, 7/22

    "Roth, one of our greatest American writers, is unrivaled in his mastery at evoking mid-20th- century New Jersey, but it's the thoughtful examination of the toll guilt takes on the psyche, the futility of raging against God or Fate, and the danger of turning blame inward that give this short novel its power." — Library Journal, starred, August 2010

    "Yet another small triumph, and by small I mean in length....This dual portrait, of a neighborhood and of a man quite representative of the times when trouble struck his neighborhood with lethal force, gives this new novel a singular appeal." - Alan Cheuse, All Things Considered and Chicago Tribune, Oct. 5

    "Roth's book has the elegance of a fable and the tragic inevitability of a Greek drama." - The New Yorker, Oct. 18

    "like a very well-executed O. Henry story, a parable about the embrace of conscience... and what its suffocating, life-denying consequences can be." -- Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

    "Set mostly in Newark in 1944 and suffused with tenderness, Roth's novel tells the story of a military reject, a young phys ed teacher, who turns a polio out-break into his own patriotic battleground." --New York Times Book Review, Editor's Choice, Oct. 17

    "Philip Roth has done it again! For his 32nd book, America’s outstanding writer has once again demonstrated his mastery of the short novel with his newest contribution, Nemesis. This achievement is especially noteworthy since Roth is now 77 years old, but advanced age has not dimmed his unusual capacity to engage and delight his readers." - The Jewish Chronicle

    "Moving....A sad beauty is found in Roth's details and descripions...Nemesis is painful and powerful." -- Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today
  • excerpts

    1

    Equatorial Newark

    The first case of polio that summer came early in June, right after Memorial Day, in a poor Italian neighborhood crosstown from where we lived. Over in the city's southwestern corner, in the Jewish Weequahic section, we heard nothing about it, nor did we hear anything about the next dozen cases scattered singly throughout Newark in nearly every neighborhood but ours. Only by the Fourth of July, when there were already forty cases reported in the city, did an article appear on the front page of the evening paper, titled "Health Chief Puts Parents on Polio Alert," in which Dr. William Kittell, superintendent of the Board of Health, was quoted as cautioning parents to monitor their children closely and to contact a physician if a child exhibited symptoms such as headache, sore throat, nausea, stiff neck, joint pain, or fever. Though Dr. Kittell acknowledged that forty polio cases was more than twice as many as normally reported this early in the polio season, he wanted it clearly understood that the city of 429,000 was by no means suffering from what could be characterized as an epidemic of poliomyelitis. This summer as every summer, there was reason for concern and for the proper hygienic precautions to be taken, but there was as yet no cause for the sort of alarm that had been displayed by parents, "justifiably enough," twenty-eight years earlier, during the largest outbreak of the disease ever reported-the 1916 polio epidemic in the northeastern United States, when there had been more than 27,000 cases, with 6,000 deaths. In Newark there had been 1,360 cases and 363 deaths.

     Now even in a year with an average number of cases, when the chances of contracting polio were much reduced from what they'd been back in 1916, a paralytic disease that left a youngster permanently disabled and deformed or unable to breathe outside a cylindrical metal respirator tank known as an iron lung-or that could lead from paralysis of the respiratory muscles to death-caused the parents in our neighborhood considerable apprehension and marred the peace of mind of children who were free of school for the summer months and able to play outdoors all day and into the long twilit evenings. Concern for the dire consequences of falling seriously ill from polio was compounded by the fact that no medicine existed to treat the disease and no vaccine to produce immunity. Polio-or infantile paralysis, as it was called when the disease was thought to infect mainly toddlers-could befall anyone, for no apparent reason. Though children up to sixteen were usually the sufferers, adults too could become severely infected, as had the current president of the United States.

     Franklin Delano Roosevelt, polio's most renowned victim, had contracted the disease as a vigorous man of thirty-nine and subsequently had to be supported when he walked and, even then, had to wear heavy steel-and-leather braces from his hips to his feet to enable him to stand. The charitable institution that FDR founded while he was in the White House, the March of Dimes, raised money for research and for financial assistance to the families of the stricken; though partial or even full recovery was possible, it was often only after months or years of expensive hospital therapy and rehabilitation. During the annual fund drive, America's young donated their dimes at school to help in the fight against the disease, they dropped their dimes into collection cans passed around by ushers in movie theaters, and posters announcing "You Can Help, Too!" and "Help Fight Polio!" appeared on the walls of stores and offices and in the corridors of schools across the country, posters of children in wheelchairs-a pretty little girl wearing leg braces shyly sucking her thumb, a clean-cut little boy with leg braces heroically smiling with hope-posters that made the possibility of getting the disease seem all the more frighteningly real to otherwise healthy children.

     Summers were steamy in low-lying Newark, and because the city was partially ringed by extensive wetlands-a major source of malaria back when that, too, was an unstoppable disease-there were swarms of mosquitoes to be swatted and slapped away whenever we sat on beach chairs in the alleys and driveways at night, seeking refuge out of doors from our sweltering flats, where there was nothing but a cold shower and ice water to mitigate the hellish heat. This was before the advent of home air conditioning, when a small black electric fan, set on a table to stir up a breeze indoors, offered little relief once the temperature reached the high nineties, as it did repeatedly that summer for stretches of a week or ten days. Outdoors, people lit citronella candles and sprayed with cans of the insecticide Flit to keep at bay the mosquitoes and flies that were known to have carried malaria, yellow fever, and typhoid fever and were believed by many, beginning with Newark's Mayor Drummond, who launched a citywide "Swat the Fly" campaign, to carry polio. When a fly or a mosquito managed to penetrate the screens of a family's flat or fly in through an open door, the insect would be doggedly hunted down with fly swatter and Flit out of fear that by alighting with its germ-laden legs on one of the household's sleeping children it would infect the youngster with polio. Since nobody then knew the source of the contagion, it was possible to grow suspicious of almost anything, including the bony alley cats that invaded our backyard garbage cans and the haggard stray dogs that slinked hungrily around the houses and defecated all over the sidewalk and street and the pigeons that cooed in the gables of the houses and dirtied front stoops with their chalky droppings. In the first month of the outbreak-before it was acknowledged as an epidemic by the Board of Health-the sanitation department set about systematically to exterminate the city's huge population of alley cats, even though no one knew whether they had any more to do with polio than domesticated house cats.

     What people did know was that the disease was highly contagious and might be passed to the healthy by mere physical proximity to those already infected. For this reason, as the number of cases steadily mounted in the city-and communal fear with it-many children in our neighborhood found themselves prohibited by their parents from using the big public pool at Olympic Park in nearby Irvington, forbidden to go to the local "air-cooled" movie theaters, and forbidden to take the bus downtown or to travel Down Neck to Wilson Avenue to see our minor league team, the Newark Bears, play baseball at Ruppert Stadium. We were warned not to use public toilets or public drinking fountains or to swig a drink out of someone else's soda-pop bottle or to get a chill or to play with strangers or to borrow books from the public library or to talk on a public pay phone or to buy food from a street vendor or to eat until we had cleaned our hands thoroughly with soap and water. We were to wash all fruit and vegetables before we ate them, and we were to keep our distance from anyone who looked sick or complained of any of polio's telltale symptoms.

     Escaping the city's heat entirely and being sent off to a summer camp in the mountains or the countryside was considered a child's best protection against catching polio. So too was spending the summer some sixty miles away at the Jersey Shore. A family who could afford it rented a bedroom with kitchen privileges in a rooming house in Bradley Beach, a strip of sand, boardwalk, and cottages a mile long that had already been popular for several decades among North Jersey Jews. There the mother and the children would go to the beach to breathe in the fresh, fortifying ocean air all week long and be joined on weekends and vacations by the father. Of course, cases of polio were known to crop up in summer camps as they did in the shore's seas...

Available Resources

Related Categories

  • Format: eBook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547504506

  • ISBN-10: 0547504500

  • Pages: 300

  • Price: $9.99

  • Publication Date: 10/05/2010

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