The title of Philip Roth’s Nemesis (2010) is a clever giveaway. In the first two thirds of the book it seems clear who or what is the protagonist’s nemesis. Bucky is a strong young man, who is in charge of supervising the playground in 1944’s Newark. (I had to familiarize myself with the concept of playground supervision as it sounded so alien to my experience.) Bucky’s enemy in that hot summer was the polio endemic ravaging the kids he was taking care of.
At the time, when it was not known how the disease spread his big dilemma was whether to close down the playground, so the kids wouldn’t infect each other, or keep it open, so at least their energies would be well spent and they wouldn’t become delinquent or bored at home. He chooses one of these options, but I don’t want to spoil this part of the book for you. The reader can follow all the steps of the decision making process and appreciate the difficulty of the choice he needs to make. In the process we learn to like him, even though there was a growing sense of an incoming tragedy.
By the end of the book it becomes clear that his real nemesis was himself. The ability of forgiving himself was missing from the makeup of his personality due to a mixture of strict and living upbringing by his grandparents and due to his own personality. This is what really hurts him on the longer term and this is the nemesis he doesn’t manage to defeat.
Looking at the core issues our hero is struggling with faith. His fiance has an unshakable, simple, traditional belief in the divine, that he cannot comprehend and laughs at. His own anti-belief stance stance is just as unshakable and simple and it its own way traditional too. At one point in the novel (disc 2. segment #90 on the audibook format I listened to) the narrator says: “Now that he was no longer a child, he was capable of understanding of why things couldn’t be otherwise was because of God. If not for God, if not for the nature of God they would be otherwise.” This is the point in his youth where he lost his faith. Soon after he takes over the burdens of personal responsibility from God and that eventually cripples him physically and more seriously, mentally.
I learned much more about polio and its social consequences from the book. I also appreciated working through the main dilemmas, without me having to make such a decisions. I felt it was a good virtual training ground for accepting the possible future when I have to chose between two bad options, with inevitable negative consequences. In short, I enjoyed the moral and theological aspects more than the turn of events in this novel, but this latter aspects also helped me wanting to finish it fast and learned who the narrator was and what happened to Bucky in his later life. rest assured these questions do get answered.