The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Philip Roth’s epidemic and ours

A doctor performs a spinal tap on a polio patient in Hickory, N.C. in 1944. Philip Roth’s novel, “Nemesis,” portrays a polio epidemic in Newark, N.J., in the same decade. (Alfred Eisenstaedt/The Life Picture Collection via Getty Images)
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Several weeks ago, just as the coronavirus was laying siege to my home city of New York, I began watching the HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel “The Plot Against America.” Even more so than when I read the book soon after publication in 2004, a time when some basic rules still applied to American politics, the cable version attested to Roth’s ruthless perceptiveness in depicting the United States sliding toward fascism.

As the covid-19 pandemic has deepened its grip, emptying the streets of my neighborhood and filling the air with ambulance sirens, my mind began turning to a different Roth novel. That one, “Nemesis,” takes place in the same Jewish section of Newark as “Plot,” Weequahic, and in the same decade, the 1940s. Its catastrophe, however, is a polio epidemic.

Now, having reread “Nemesis” for the first time since its release exactly a decade ago, I cannot help but be unnerved by its prophetic perspicacity. As in “Plot,” Roth’s imagined past foretold our lived present. “Nemesis” offers a psychic map to our current struggle with an invasive and ineradicable disease, one that leaves every individual wondering who else might be carrying it and passing it lethally along.

Roth set “Nemesis” in 1944, in part to establish a parallel between polio’s ravages and those of the world war. Newark did not have a major outbreak that summer, but it did endure them in both 1916 and 1952, and hardly any summer in between passed without a major surge of cases somewhere in America.

The people of Roth’s book, like so many people across the globe now, cannot know precisely how and when the disease spreads. Is it from flies, mosquitoes, public pools, water fountains, toilets, sewage? Can it be carried on coins or dollar bills or animal fur? In Roth’s fractious Newark, the Italians think it’s the Jews’ fault and the Jews wonder if the malady travels into their homes with their “colored cleaning women.”

What is statistically certain is the growing caseload and death toll during the torrid summer. Then, as now, an initial dismissal of the threat gives way to parental panic, shutdowns of parks and movie theaters, houses bearing quarantine signs. The local hospitals run out of equipment — iron-lung machines, the ventilator equivalent of its time.

Roth centers all of the burgeoning terror and anguish on his protagonist, Bucky Cantor, a 23-year-old phys-ed teacher with a summer job overseeing 90 kids on a public playground. As polio exacts its toll from Bucky’s youngsters, he guiltily takes up his fiancee’s offer to join her on the staff of a mountain camp in the Poconos.There the virus continues its stalking.

So many of Roth’s descriptions could be cut-and-pasted into journalistic accounts of the covid-19 pandemic. “He could hear a siren in the distance,” Roth writes of Bucky. “He heard sirens off and on, day and night now. They were not the air-raid sirens. . . . These were the sirens on ambulances going to get polio victims and transport them to the hospital, sirens stridently screaming, ‘Out of the way — a life is at stake!’”

In Roth’s fictive Newark, as in our present reality, the daily newspaper publishes its daily chart of the infected and the deceased: “There were the terrifying numbers charting the progress of a horrible disease and, in the sixteen wards of Newark, corresponding in their impact to the numbers of dead, wounded, and missing in the real war. Because this was real war, too, a war of slaughter, ruin, waste, and damnation, war with the ravages of war — war upon the children of Newark.”

Most of all, Roth understands the corrosive power of pervasive, irresistible contagion on human bonds. The first death that Bucky experiences is that of Alan Michaels, a 12-year-old boy who kept tropical fish as a hobby. When Bucky pays a condolence call to Alan’s parents, he hears from the boy’s father a sorrowful aria that sounds frighteningly contemporary:

“As soon as the doctor came he immediately called the ambulance, and at the hospital they whisked him away from us — and that was it. We never saw our son alive again. He died all alone. No chance to say so much as goodbye. All we have of him is a closet with his clothes and his schoolbooks and his sports things, and there, over there, his fish.”

Later in the book, at the summer camp that Bucky had envisioned as a refuge, he sees a younger counselor in his bunk succumb within hours to fever, chills, and then stiffening limbs. As the teenager is driven off to the hospital, Roth writes, “the look in his eyes was gruesome — two feverish eyes scanning Bucky’s face, frantically seeking a panacea that no one could provide.”

To follow Bucky’s trajectory in “Nemesis” is to be painfully reminded of the caregivers, medical personnel and service workers on the front lines of the coronavirus. Bucky goes from being the vigorous athlete cheering up his playground charges, staving off fear with common sense about washing your hands often and drinking plenty of water, to a sudden victim of the stealthy disease, and possibly an unwitting agent of spreading it.

Sometimes Bucky blames God and sometimes he blames himself. He drives away his fiancee precisely because she is adamant about still wanting to marry the disabled version of Bucky. He is, as Roth puts it, “not just crippled physically by polio but no less demoralized by persistent shame.”

Probably not coincidentally, “Nemesis” was Roth’s last book, written with a heightened awareness of mortality, and infused with a certain kind of forgiveness. “Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not,” Roth writes in the voice of his narrator, one of the playground boys who survived polio to live into adulthood. “Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance — the tyranny of contingency — is everything. Chance is what I believed Mr. Cantor meant when he was decrying what he called God.”

By Philip Roth

Vintage. 309 pp. $16.95 paperback

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