by Philip Roth
Roth is on his usual patch – the jewish community in New Jersey. It is the summer of 1944 and Bucky Cantor is a young man who embodies the spirit of the All-American hero. He is a natural athlete, strong, determined, principled, just, a role model to the young people he teaches; he cares lovingly for his aging grandfather; and is deeply in love with an equally exemplary young woman. He has just two weaknesses: his extreme short-sightedness (which to his shame prevents him from being called up) and the absolute standards he sets himself.
In the unbearable heat of a particularly harsh summer polio breaks out in New Jersey. At that time there was no cure for polio, no vaccine and no understanding of how it was passed from one person to another. The 1916 epidemic in the US had resulted in more than 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths. Many of those who survived the disease were left with partial paralysis or, in the worst cases, confined to the ‘iron lung’ that enabled them to breath. In the years before vaccination, it was usual for a few cases to occur every year, but this summer it reaches epidemic proportions. When some of the boys Bucky coaches on a vacation sports programme succumb to polio, he finds himself having to make difficult choices.
Bucky Cantor is one of those rare, tragic characters that continue to live in the mind after the book is finished. And in this haunting story Roth brilliantly recreates the claustrophobia of a sweltering New Jersey and the palpable fear of contamination that sours the atmosphere in the city.
NEMESIS was short-listed for the £25,000 2011 Wellcome Trust Prize for the finest fiction or non-fiction book centred around medicine.
Published by Vintage, 280pp.