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.