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Thursday, February 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 12.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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A Book A Week: Nemesis by Philip Roth

Leah Hager Cohen, writing in The New York Times, says she always thought Philip Roth's books were "for boys." Then she goes on to say how much she liked Nemesis.

Why? It's just as boy-centric as all the others. I managed to get through it only because I was interested in two things: the topic (polio) and the setting (the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, N.J., in 1944, where my mother-in-law -- and Philip Roth -- grew up).

Roth's alter ego, Bucky Cantor, is a young gym teacher and playground director. At the beginning of the summer of 1944 he organizes pickup baseball games for his young charges, who are mostly 12-year-old boys. But as the summer progresses, he watches in horror as several of the boys fall sick and die, turning what should have been an idyllic summer into a nightmare.

At the urging of his panicked fiancée, Bucky leaves Newark for a job at the more bucolic (and ostensibly safer) environment of a summer camp in rural Pennsylvania. But polio emerges there, too, and Bucky must face the question of whether or not he brought it with him.

Of course, because this is a Philip Roth book we must spend a lot of time considering Bucky's masculinity. He is strong and fit and handsome but, to his deep disappointment, his bad eyesight has kept him out of the Army. His buddies are invading Normandy, but he is supervising children. Ah, the contradictions!

I cannot tell you how many pages are filled as Roth explores this issue, over and over and over again. And if I was looking for any insights into what it was like to be a 12-year-old girl in Weequahic in 1944 (which is exactly the age my mother-in-law was), I certainly didn't find it in this book, where the only female characters are some nameless girls who jump rope in one corner of the playground (and apparently never contract polio; did only boys get it?) and the fiancée who does almost nothing but whine. To quote my mother-in-law, oy vey.

Apparently there was no widespread polio epidemic in Newark in 1944, but there was one in 1952, and each mid-century summer brought polio scares around the U.S. until the polio vaccine was made widely available in the late 1950s.

I recently asked my father what he remembered about polio as a child in the 1940s in West Philadelphia, and he said he mostly remembered his mother's anxiety. "We used to swim in Darby Creek and she was terrified that we would catch polio from the creek water. So we just lied to her and told her we weren't swimming."

So clearly in his case the anxiety was confined to the adults. I can't imagine what it must have been like for my grandmother to be constantly worried that her children could catch a fatal disease just from playing outside. For me that's a much more interesting topic than whether or not Bucky Cantor is real man or not.

Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.

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