Philip Roth’s perfectly proportioned Greek tragedy set against the 1944 New Jersey polio epidemic

Nemesis, by Philip Roth, Jonathan Cape RRP£16.99, 280 pages

Philip Roth’s fifth short novel in five years is a perfectly proportioned Greek tragedy played out against the background of the polio epidemic that swept Newark, New Jersey, during the summer of 1944.

Denied the chance to fight for his country on account of his myopia, 23-year-old playground supervisor Bucky Cantor watches the children under his care succumb to the mysterious disease. Roth’s protagonist defines the ideal of duty: he cares for his grandmother, loves his fiancée and stands up to the Italian yobs who threaten his charges. But when he finally leaves the city for the relative safety of a rural summer camp, he is racked by self-disgust.

Yet, as the reader comes to see in the masterful third “act” of Nemesis, Bucky’s fatal flaw is not the moral cowardice he fears but the manner in which he lets guilt paralyse his life, like a polio of the soul, and the hubris he shows in believing that he can battle the “tyranny of contingency”.

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