Phantom Menace: Polio Paralyzes Philip Roth

Two of the more dispiriting tendencies lately afflicting the American novel are the proliferation of the historical novel and the narrative of illness. Historical novels arrive with an air of self-congratulation as the social novelist addresses problems our society has already overcome. Illness relieves the writer of the burden of inventing villains or anyone particularly unsympathetic. Both genres allow the author to pose as a sort of specialist. The historical novelist drenches his book in research, and the novel becomes a learning experience. Writing about illness can lend an author the authority of a physician. Great books, of course, emerge from both strategies, but their slack execution yields works with predictable flaws: rote historicism and nostalgia on the one hand; maudlin rending of garments on the other.

Philip Roth might be the last novelist we would expect to commit these failings. Mr. Roth has, after all, authored some of the most celebrated historical fictions of recent memory, in his American Trilogy–American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain–not to mention his fine Korean War-era campus novel of 2008, Indignation. Illness, the vicissitudes of the body and grief, moreover, have, along with sex, been among Mr. Roth’s prime themes, from The Anatomy Lesson, wherein Nathan Zuckerman starts to imagine a new career for himself as a doctor, through Exit Ghost, the swan song of Zuckerman and his busted prostate.

Mr. Roth’s new novel, Nemesis, is set in 1944, as an epidemic of polio sweeps through his native Newark. The novel opens in the manner of one of those New Yorker book reviews that neglect to mention the book under consideration until page three: “Polio–or infantile paralysis, as it was called when the disease was thought to infect mainly toddlers–could befall anyone, for no apparent reason. Though children up to sixteen were usually the sufferers, adults too could become severely infected as had the current president of the United States.” This is dutiful exposition, not the stuff that makes Mr. Roth great.

For that we have to wait another 20 pages, until we learn how the novel’s hero, Bucky Cantor, earned his nickname at age 10 by shattering the skull of a rat with the backside of a shovel: “Blood intermingled with bits of bone and brain drained into the cracks of the stockroom floorboards as–having failed to suppress completely a sudden impulse to vomit–he used the shovel blade to scoop up the dead animal.” This is a more familiar mode for Mr. Roth–visceral imagery, mundane violence and dizzying squeamishness–and it is a mode largely absent from the rest of Nemesis.

Bucky spends the first half of the novel imagining that he is protecting the children of Newark from polio in his job as a playground director in the Jewish Weequahic neighborhood. Early on, a couple of Italian “roughnecks” approach the playground declaring they’ve come “to spread some polio” by spitting on the sidewalk. Bucky expels them, and washes away their spit with ammonia. Still, two boys come down with polio the next day and soon die. The neighborhood desperately casts about for someone to blame. Was it the Italians? A bad hot dog? Or is the virus being spread by Horace, the neighborhood gimp?

These futile questions are reiterated as Bucky visits with mourning parents and attends a funeral. The lamentations abound. Weequahic is, after all, a neighborhood teeming with brilliant, athletic, cheerful young boys, like dead little Alan Michaels, who according to his uncle Isadore “was an authority on tropical fish.” And what if the doomed nephew had survived past the age of 12? “He wanted to be a scientist and cure disease. … He wanted to be another Louis Pasteur.” Or, presumably, Jonas Salk.

In the face of polio’s motiveless menace, every boy in Newark is a vulnerable innocent–every boy is a good boy, Bucky Cantor most of all. And herein lies the novel’s undoing. Mr. Roth explains his hero’s shortcomings a few pages from the end: “He was a largely humorous person, articulate enough but with barely a trace of wit, who never in his life had spoken satirically or with irony, who rarely cracked a joke or spoke in jest–someone instead haunted by an exacerbated sense of duty but endowed with little force of mind.” It is as if Mr. Roth set himself the challenge of writing a novel about a character drained of all the qualities that animated Alex Portnoy, Nathan Zuckerman and David Kapesh, to name just three.

But perhaps the best comparison is with Neil Klugman, the hero of Goodbye, Columbus. Neil, like Bucky, is in his early 20s, stuck in Newark with a dead-end job. Bucky, like Neil, falls for a girl from a more prosperous family, Marcia Steinberg (whose father, a doctor, delivers some of the novel’s most diagnostic dialogue about polio), and revels in their middle-class trappings: “The Steinbergs’ house was the kind Mr. Cantor had dreamed about living in when he was a kid.” But unlike Neil, Bucky is too disciplined to take any pleasure for himself. He may be the least libidinous hero Mr. Roth has ever brought to the page.

And in the novel’s one sexual encounter, this corrodes Mr. Roth’s prose: “Without her clothes, she was small and slim, with beautifully formed, lightly muscled legs and thin arms and fragile wrists and tiny breasts, affixed high on her chest and nipples that were soft, pale, and unprotuberant.” Notice the stilted diction–“muscled,” “affixed,” “unprotuberant”–about as romantic as reading a page of Roget’s. Then the next line: “The slender elfin female body looked as vulnerable as a child’s.” Creepy, yes, but also a signal that our hero’s thoughts will be turning shortly back to the virus that is his real obsession.

The love scene occurs on a lake in the Poconos, where Bucky has fled to join Marcia as a camp counselor, abandoning his charges in Newark. When he hears from home that the city’s playgrounds have been closed as the epidemic swells, he starts to think his escape may have been too good to be true. The story unfolds predictably from there and ends in tragedy.

Mr. Roth appears deliberately to have put aside his greatest strengths in Nemesis, neglecting comedy and psychology in the service of history and pathology. The result is a dutifully drawn study in being dutiful. And a sense of duty to one of our great novelists may be the only reason to read it.

Phantom Menace: Polio Paralyzes Philip Roth