Philip Roth

First Sentence: The first case of polio that summer came early in June, right after Memorial Day, in a poor Italian neighborhood crosstown from where we lived.

Set in the summer of 1944 this is the fourth installment in Roth’s Nemeses series of short novels . Bucky Cantor is in the prime of his life, teaching PE to kids in Newark when the polio epidemic hits. As more children become sick and the cases become more severe, Cantor feels increasingly helpless. Already feeling powerless after being denied the chance to fight for his country, he does what he can to protect his students while also looking after his elderly grandmother and his fiancée Marcia Steinberg who is teaching in a remote summer camp. The two aspects of this book I enjoyed the most were Cantor’s feelings towards God and Marcia. The descriptions of Marcia were touching; her eyes were “two dream targets, their concentric circles colored brownish black.”, while his thoughts on God were often savage and unrestrained; He was “a sick fuck and an evil genius.” Here is a man torn between love and hate, who feels impotent in the face of a larger enemy, and a man who ultimately must decide whether or not to accept the things which he cannot change or to risk losing everything by letting events beyond his control tear him up inside. This is a gripping short novel by an American master, expertly told and faultlessly executed.

* * * *

Last Sentence: Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder-and releasing it then like an explosion-he seemed to us invincible.

Midway through this novel, Cantor decides to leave Newark and polio behind him and to join Marcia in her remote teaching job. Little does he know however that he is a carrier of the disease and in all likelihood it was him who infected his pupils in the first place. When people start getting ill at his new job in Indian Hills, and he discovers the truth, he cannot bear it anymore and turns away from everybody who loves him. When he finally makes a full recovery from his disease he is left with nothing and no one. He then meets Arnie Mesnikoff, the narrator of this book who he taught as a child, and tells him his story. The book ends with Arnie recalling how all the pupils perceived Cantor when they were children, something which he most certainly was not. (Another thing i loved about this book is that we do not actually learn who the narrator is until over 100 pages in when he just slips his name in as one of the kids who got polio. A nice touch.)

Random quote about polio and God’s existence:

“For the very existence of polio? How could there be forgiveness-let alone Hallelujahs- in the face of such lunatic cruelty?”


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