THE BLOG
11/26/2014 11:15 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

Philip Roth's Nemesis : Polio & Ebola

A few years ago, Philip Roth found himself thinking back to the threats that had menaced America in his lifetime. It struck him that while he had explored fascism in his 2004 novel The Plot Against America, he had never written about that far more immediate and terrifying peril that had raged at roughly the same time. And so he set out to write about it with one single word in his head: polio. In 2010, he published Nemesis, a slender and brutal novel that recreated the horror of the epidemic years.

Polio might seem like a medieval scourge to today's generation, but older Americans still have harrowing memories of iron lungs, wooden crutches, leg braces, and child-sized pinewood coffins. An equally clear memory, no doubt, is that glorious spring morning of April 12, 1955, when church bells rang out, factory sirens blared, and department stores switched on their loudspeakers to broadcast the incredible news that Jonas Salk's polio vaccine had been declared "safe, potent and effective." America celebrated as if a war had been won.

This year the world is celebrating the birth centenary of Jonas Salk, the brilliant virologist behind the vaccine, who was born on October 28, 1914 in New York City to Jewish immigrant parents. There can be no more apposite -- or poignant -- moment to honor his monumental achievement than now, when scientists across the world are working frantically to develop a vaccine for a new infectious scourge, Ebola. There is also no better time to read or re-read Nemesis, a novel that not only enables the reader to apprehend the sheer magnitude of Salk's achievement but also forcefully reminds us of a shared humanity by recalling that scarcely 60 years ago this very superpower was battling a health crisis in the way three West African countries are today.

In stark and unsparing prose, Roth evokes the anguish and terror that swept through his childhood neighborhood, the Weequahic Jewish section in Newark, during of the summer of 1944. At the time, since no one knew how the contagion spread -- it is spread through the fecal-oral route -- there was wild speculation and scapegoating. Flies were hunted down and killed in case they were carriers as were hundreds of scrawny alley cats. During the summer months, which came to be dreaded as polio season, the streets were doused with DDT. People were afraid to talk on the telephone, touch money, or shake hands. What terrified them most of all was that the Crippler loved children. Which is why, the searing question at the heart of Roth's novel is that eternal question of moral epidemiology: Why do so many terrible things happen to good people?

The 81-year-old Roth has spent a lifetime studying human nature with the same unforgiving eye that Jonas Salk applied to infectious disease. Nemesis holds up the mirror to our deepest fears. But it also reinforces how human beings, despite the often insuperable differences of race, wealth and religion, are elementally the same. To read Nemesis is to read about West Africa today. The novel's clean and quiet Newark environs may be a far cry from the poor and densely populated streets of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, but the grief and anger, the bewilderment, fear and despair experienced by the Jewish community is no different from the panoply of emotions pulsating through West African families today.

How different, for instance, is a speechless, bereaved father in Newark from a Liberian one? How different is the exemplary fortitude displayed by a Newark schoolteacher from that shown by a Monrovian ambulance nurse working from dawn to midnight collecting infected patients laid out on his city's streets? Mothers in Ebola-hit countries are shaking their fists at their governments in the same way that the Weequahic mothers fulminate against the Board of Health.

With Nemesis, Roth announced his retirement from writing, modestly summing up his distinguished and prolific career by quoting the words of the boxer Joe Louis, who said, 'I did the best I could with what I had.' The exhausted Monrovian ambulance nurse mentioned above echoed that sentiment but in a more heartbreaking context. Forced to deposit an Ebola-affected woman back to her shack after overflowing hospitals turn them away, the nurse knows the woman will die. But he has done his best. Rubbing his hands over his face to fight back tears, he said, "We cannot do what we cannot do." Even Roth would find it hard to improve on that anguished coda of human limitation.

Set against the backdrop of World War II, human limitation forms the moral framework of Nemesis, as personified in its protagonist, Bucky Cantor, an upright, young playground director in Weequahic. The children of the neighborhood worship this javelin-throwing Hercules in a crew cut and silk shorts, and with good reason. Diligent, friendly, and respectful, Cantor takes his job and himself very seriously. The day after Pearl Harbor, he rushes to the recruitment office only to be turned away for his weak eyesight. When his able-bodied mates march off to war in their smart new uniforms, he sobs with shame.

But what Cantor doesn't know is that he will soon get his share of what he craves, what Samuel Johnson so eloquently called "the dignity of danger." He will become a solider himself -- against a virus that begins to paralyze and kill his young charges. All through the lethal summer, Cantor is the voice of calm and reason. "What's important is not to infect the children with the germ of fear," he repeatedly cautions parents, paraphrasing the wartime counsel of "polio's most renowned victim," President Roosevelt -- counsel most urgently needed in America today, where the Ebola virus continues not to spread even as hysteria about it does.

Like the 700 American soldiers sent to fight Ebola in West Africa, Cantor becomes a Polio marine in his neighborhood -- maniacally scrubbing floors with disinfectant and watching over the children's hygiene with a lynx's eye for dirt. Until, of course, in a moment of weakness, he uncharacteristically abandons his post to join his girlfriend at a children's summer camp in the hills, where, in a savage twist, he discovers to his horror, but too late, that he is a healthy carrier, a fifth column for the virus. Cantor is crippled by polio. But what really destroys him is his guilt -- not just the fatalistic guilt that he was Typhoid Mary, the arrow Nemesis used to infect the healthy children at camp, but the deeper more lacerating personal guilt of abandoning his station at the playground.

Shattered by a disease that deforms children, Cantor shakes his fist at God. What kind of God, he thinks, allows 12-year-olds to be killed? What kind of forgiveness can there be for this "lunatic cruelty?" How could people bear to "swallow the official lie that God is good and truckle before a cold-blooded murderer of children?" His railings at the absurd and malicious workings of a "theological enigma" are at the very heart of human suffering -- these questions have been asked before and are being asked today. But as Roth gently but firmly points out, sadomasochistic guilt and eternal bitterness against a cruel God lead nowhere. Cantor's body becomes a deformed shrine to his own martyrdom. He breaks off with his girlfriend, leaves the neighborhood, and withdraws into his bitterness. We meet him 30 years later and he has still not forgiven himself or God. Although essentially a decent and good man, Cantor allows his own hubris to become an incarceration far worse than any iron lung.

Against Cantor's black rage and self-loathing, however, is a jingle of hope: the jingle of the March of Dimes. Though Salk's vaccine is still ten years away, the millions of dollars that would make it possible are already being gathered. Started by Roosevelt, the movement called on every single American to contribute a dime toward the fight against polio. Roth describes how collection cans were passed around by ushers in movie halls, and how hundreds of posters went up everywhere with pictures of "a pretty little girl wearing leg braces shyly sucking her thumb, a clean-cut little boy with leg braces heroically smiling with hope," accompanied by the hortatory slogan, "Help Fight Polio!" It was the avalanche of proletarian dimes that funded the multimillion dollar research that led to Salk's invention, and later, Albert Sabin's oral vaccine.

Salk's vaccine marked public health's finest hour in America -- the Crippler defeated by the united forces of government, science, and citizenry. The soldiers who fought this war included two million children who participated as Polio Pioneers in the immunization trials, the largest medical field trial in history. Why did so many parents agree to allow their children to be guinea pigs? As the grim events in Nemesis plainly show, parents were so desperate for any kind of protection that they disregarded any murmuring fears they might have had.

Roth was 11 years old when his friend down the street contracted polio. Suddenly, swiftly, words like mortality, death and disease became terrifyingly real, as did a dawning sense of helplessness against forces in the universe beyond one's control. The Ebola epidemic proves, if proof were needed, that the universe can always be relied on to produce new and devastating pestilences.

Nowhere is this bleak thought brought home more piercingly than in the scene where Cantor and his girlfriend Marcia are lying on an island under a starry sky. Determined to distract him from his feelings of unworthiness, Marcia chatters on about how "we are infinitesimal" compared to the cosmic grandeur of the sun and stars. The brooding Cantor doesn't reply. Though not a particularly brilliant or witty man, the unspoken thought that passes through his head has a chilling irony. "There's something more infinitesimal than us," he thinks. "The virus destroying everything."