I have been reading one of Philip Roth’s recent short novels, Nemesis, and it certainly allowed me to identify and reminisce about the quasi-historical and richly human observations the author allowed me to share. The subject is that frightening summer disease which seemed to strike down young kids for doing normal summer things like playing baseball, running around, jumping through the sprinklers, cooling off at the public swimming pool. Nowadays we don’t think too much about polio (misnamed infantile paralysis) but not that long ago it was very real and very scary. Al Qaeda today does not come close to the fear and misery polio brought to unsuspecting families in all parts of this country.
The big polio breakout was back in the early twentieth century (as was a deadly influenza outbreak) but Roth is writing about the way polio affected his world encapsulated in the Newark, New Jersey area, especially around Weequahic Park and Irvington. This is my first connection to this and most of the author’s works: I moved into the Newark area to start my career after college and became quite familiar with many of the sites and events Roth writes about. I suppose it is an added advantage to be able to re-image a location from memory and not just from the prose of the author.
It also made a simple contrast to the youth dying in Europe and on the islands in the Pacific during World War II: what is scarier, war or polio?
He was struck by how lives diverge and how powerless each of us is up against the force of circumstance. And where does God figure in this? Why does He set one person down in Nazi-occupied Europe with a rifle in his hands and the other in the Indian Hill dining lodge in front of a plate of macaroni and cheese? Why does He place one Weequahic child in polio-ridden Newark for the summer and another in the splendid sanctuary of the Poconos? For someone who had previously found diligence and hard work the solution to all his problems, there was now much that was inexplicable to him about why what happens, happens as it does.
The other connection I have is that I remember the polio scares that occurred about ten years after the period depicted in Nemesis. It was before the vaccine was discovered by Jonas Salk and it was just like Roth describes it: we were not allowed to run around in the heat of the day or cavort in the sprinklers; the kid down the street got polio but survived; it was on the news, worried about by neighbors leaning over the back fence, and even in the glossy magazines. When I was a kid two things really scared me: first, Beanie and Cecil ran a bit where a big bird (the Roc?) stole the H-Bomb and was trying to hatch it her nest (DJ had to be in on this but I don’t recall). Now for reference, this was the original puppet version of Beanie and Cecil, not the cartoon that came later (and yes, I can sing Rag Mop as well as any sea serpent). Well, I was in a world of nightmare thinking about that bomb going off and destroying the world (remember the concern that a big enough bomb might ignite all the atoms of the planet in one big bang: the infamous chain reaction?
The other thing that gave me nightmares (other than some bad guacamole I ingested on a trip to Sacramento) was the iron lung. I believe it was Life Magazine that provided me with more images of kids trapped in a large metal drum with only a mirror to allow them to see the world. I suspect that back then the choice of not running around in the heat of the day versus spending the rest of your life in a can was reasonable but you know how pre-hormonal boys just can’t seem to sit still.
Well, that is the story in Nemesis: polio. It’s also an exploration of irrational fear, religious questioning, and a confrontation with inexplicable death. Roth writes a good novel and I for one appreciate his centering of much he writes around a familiar territory.
Although I find even the thought that an American reader has not read Philip Roth, it’s good to see how Roth’s fiction involves more than one work developing a character and the world around that character:
The Ghost Writer (1979)
Zuckerman Unbound (1981)
The Anatomy Lesson (1983)
The Prague Orgy (1985)
(The above four books are collected as Zuckerman Bound)
The Counterlife (1986)
American Pastoral (1997)
I Married a Communist (1998)
The Human Stain (2000)
Exit Ghost (2007)
Deception: A Novel (1990)
Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993)
The Plot Against America (2004)
The Breast (1972)
The Professor of Desire (1977)
The Dying Animal (2001)
Goodbye, Columbus (1959)
Letting Go (1962)
When She Was Good (1967)
Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)
Our Gang (1971)
The Great American Novel (1973)
My Life As a Man (1974)
Sabbath’s Theater (1995)
The Humbling (2009)
The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography (1988)
Patrimony: A True Story (1991)
Reading Myself and Others (1976)
A Philip Roth Reader (1980, revised edition 1993)
Shop Talk (2001)