01/18/2011 04:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's Not the Illness That Stands to Destroy You

It's not the illness that stands to destroy you
Thoughts from reading Philip Roth's latest book, Nemesis.

It was the summer of 1944 and with the world at war America's youth were not only endangered by the pitch of battle in Europe and the Pacific. A polio epidemic had erupted and was taking lives and crippling others, especially children, living in the United States.

Philip Roth, Pulitzer prize novelist, takes us into the everyday lives of the families, Jewish families as he is wont to do, of Newark, N.J. The story revolves around Bucky Cantor, a 24-year-old phys ed teacher and playground director, the boys at the Chancellor Street playground, Bucky's girlfriend, Marcia Steinberg, and her family. Bucky has come of age thanks to his grandparents since his mother died at childbirth and his father had been a crook. He is rejected by the draft because he is terribly myopic but otherwise he is an exceptionally healthy and decent young man, a high board diver, javelin thrower and weight lifter, whom the boys in the neighborhood and playground adore.

A sweltering heat wave hits Newark. But that becomes the least of its troubles. Silently, the polio virus enters and child by child strikes, indifferent to the debility and anguish it will cause. Some survive, spared death from respiratory paralysis by what were called iron lungs, but are disabled for life, and some die. The virus does not have any rules about who deserves what fate. Readers of this book will share the pain because of how extraordinary a writer Roth is: the beauty of his prose makes the heartbreak all the greater.

Bucky is first witness to the illness and its ravages in his playground boys; then he is witness to the disease in the Pocono camp he retreats to in order to escape Newark, stay alive and be with his beloved Marcia. How did the virus concentrate among his Chancellor Street boys, and then the camp -- which had been spared? Was he the carrier? Then Bucky gets polio too. After nearly two years of hospitalization and rehabilitation he is left with the limitations of one functioning arm and leg and a bitterness that is limitless. His "noble" act is to spurn Marcia who remains in love and dedicated to him. After all, he says to himself (and to her), he is crippled, probably infected her baby sister with polio, and is no longer the man that she and her family deserve. She tries, her father, Dr. Steinberg, tries, but Bucky is resolute. His punishment is to deny himself forever of what further sustenance life might provide, even when disease has already savagely robbed him.

Some 30 years later, Bucky is alone, a lowly, desk postal worker, living in another Jersey city with a life as bleak as he can make it, when one of the playground boys, now a man himself, Arnold Mesnikoff, spots him walking down the street. Arnold too had contracted polio during that awful summer; he too spent endless months in rehabilitation. But slowly, step by step, literally and figuratively, he rebuilt his body and his life, found a woman who loved and admired him, polio disabled as he was, became an architect who specialized in converting homes for people in wheelchairs, and had two children. They develop a friendship, and meet weekly for lunch at a local diner.

We thus encounter two men: one a shell of his former vital self, embittered, enraged with God, and alienated from his community; another who has suffered, because no person so disabled escapes the persistent physical pains the condition produces nor the emotional coming to grips with his limitations through every stage of adult life, yet finds a way to have love and purpose in his life. Roth shows us how Bucky had every reason to rail -- to see himself as the pestilence itself and the fiendish evil in the world, whether in the form of polio or the Nazis. Yet, did Bucky have to debase himself and self-destruct his arc as explosively as he did? Was there no way for a life? Did he have to be "so against himself" in a world that already has such an abundance of suffering for all to endure?

I thought, it was the polio that made Bucky sick but it was his character that destroyed him.

The opinions expressed herein are solely my own as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. Dr. Sederer receives no support from any pharmaceutical or device company. Visit Dr. Sederer's website at - for questions you want answered, reviews and stories.