by Philip Roth
Alright. So I finished my second Roth novel, and I think the only logical conclusion at this point is that I’m just not as smart as all those people who love Roth. I say this because I just have to be missing something. I started reading Nemesis in January, and I found it to be a quick, albeit boring, read. I took about a two-month break in the middle of the second section, simply because I basically forgot about it until I was reviewing my Goodreads list and realized that I’d never finished it. After picking it back up again, it took about an hour to finish.
The plot is set in 1940s New Jersey in the midst of a summertime polio outbreak. In the first section, we meet Bucky, a phys ed teacher at a playground where the neighborhood children spend their days. World War II is in high gear, and Roth goes to great effort wanting us to understand just how dejected Bucky was to have been rejected from the military due to nearsightedness. One by one, many of the playground children contract polio, and Bucky’s relationship with God begins to deteriorate as he struggles to accept a God that would allow innocence to fall victim to pain and death. Eventually, Bucky gives in to the pleadings of his girlfriend, and he joins her at a summer camp in the mountains, which is where the second section takes place.
When Bucky arrives at Indian Hill, he immediately begins to feel guilty for leaving his job at the playground. This guilt intensifies when he learns that the epidemic spread throughout the neighborhood even more after he left to such an extent that city authorities were considering a quarantine. Bucky vacillates between feelings of relief and elation at having escaped the nightmare of the city to spend the summer with his love, and guilt and misgiving over what he views as his abandonment of the boys back in the city. He becomes particularly attached to one teenage boy, who days later begins to exhibit the first symptoms of polio and eventually requires hospitalization. Bucky shares with camp leadership his suspicion that he is the carrier of the virus, at which point he is sent for a spinal tap.
In the third section, we learn that the spinal tap was positive, and that after the initial symptoms began, Bucky then spent months and months recuperating from polio, ultimately losing the use of his left arm and recovering only partial use of his left leg.
For as much as I stubbornly refused to dislike Lucy in When She Was Good, I just could not bring myself to find anything appealing in Bucky. He’s a narcissist, completely convinced of his own importance. He ruins his own life by insisting that he is to blame for not only the polio outbreak at Indian Hill, but in his old neighborhood as well. He hems and haws about God, and his own martyrdom, and how his broken engagement was the only way to ensure that his almost-fiancée could lead a full life. By the end of the book, I was hoping that he would just die and get it over with. No such luck.
Are there really people like this? People who cannot process reality, who need someone to blame so badly that they will fault themselves when left with no alternative, and who end up in some emotional quagmire from decades before? I don’t know. I do know, however, that I didn’t particularly enjoy reading about Bucky, and I didn’t find him all that interesting or dynamic. In fact, I find him insipid, unintelligent, and very, very annoying.