Nemesis is the last of the four short novels in the ‘Nemeses’ series by Philip Roth. The plot is about the outbreak of polio in the equatorial neighbourhood of Newark, New Jersey – where Roth comes from – in the summer of 1944 and how the people find themselves helpless, angry, protective, bewildered, suffering and humbled in front of that epidemic that has hit them hard out of nowhere – that Nemesis. Nemesis delves into the grave results that such a circumstance can have on a person, his society, and on his opinion of his strengths and weaknesses.
The protagonist Bucky Cantor, a playground director in his mid-twenties is through the eyes of whom Roth takes us into this travel. Bucky is altogether a hero in the opinion of the children who come to play ball at the Chancellor playground. He is a well built man, a weight-lifter, a javelin thrower, an man of athletic physique – all made up for him to get into the Army and fight the World War II for his nation – but his eyesight proves to be the culprit. Consequently, he is probably the only man of his age in the neighbourhood who is not on the front fighting – and this is an object of great guilt for him and makes him think he had let his grandfather – who had encouraged him to be fearless and healthy – down. God, however, has a different war for him to wage – the war against polio. In a matter of few days, Bucky witnesses several cases of polio in the children who play at his playground, two of them dead. Continuous implorations by his fiancée to leave that place and come to her the summer camp in Poconos where she works make Bucky bow before her wish out of love. His decision however culminates into a reason for utmost guilt of having escaped from his warfront when he should have diligently stayed.
Yet Bucky stays; the aura of mirth and joyous summers far away from the squalid polio-stricken neighbourhood and near his beloved Marcia makes him stay. But there is no escaping the Nemesis – polio strikes Indian Hill, and along with a Donald Kaplow, Bucky is also the victim. However, in his own view, he is more the cause than the victim, the bringer of virus to this land of dreams.
We are brought to know all about Bucky’s life post-polio by the narrator, a certain Arnold Mesnikoff who happens to run into Bucky one fine day some three decades later.
Nemesis, more than an analysis of how pestilence stricken multitudes react, is an analysis of a particular person with Bucky’s traits. It is a record of what dismal consequences self-denial by an unthinking all-responsible maniac can have. To me, Nemesis is a narrative of a person with a dismal flaw in his character which when exposed to the particular situations delivers him to self-depreciation, guilt, social abhorrence and complete loneliness. The twist in the plot like an O. Henry type story converts it from a record of behaviours during an epidemic to an analysis of the flaw in the Protagonist’s character and the setting of a polio outbreak is reduced to a mere adjustment of situations apt to highlight the flaw.
Altogether, it is an above average, likable story.