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Dramatic, tragic masterpiece
le 18 mai 2011
Minutes into this book, this non-Jewish reader was hooked because of the masterful writing. It is about a polio outbreak in the US during WW II, 11 years before a vaccine was found. It deeply unsettles a Jewish neighborhood in Newark, NJ, which soon worries on two fronts. All able-bodied young males have left to fight the Japanese and Germans. But in the hot summer of 1944, some of their younger children die within 3 days from this mystery disease or are condemned to live with withered limbs and leg braces for the rest of their lives.
Families already worrying about their soldier sons busily discuss how polio is threatening their younger children. And their thoughts have no bounds: countless near-hysterical suspicions and accusations are whispered or voiced in every direction...
Mr. Roth's memories of wartime Newark, its smells and sounds, are vibrant and graphic. He has also read quite a few books to reconstruct this forgotten epoch in American medical history.
"Nemesis" has 3 parts and is also a biography of orphan Eugene "Bucky" Cantor (23), a short, muscular, agile Jewish sports instructor raised by his grandparents. The armed forces turned him down because of his poor eye sight. He acts commendably during the scorching summer of 1944, but leaves Newark at the height of the outbreak to pursue an alternative life choice... This is the subject of Part 2.
What happens next is high drama for readers to discover. The "fictional" author is not Philip Roth or his creation Bucky Cantor, but another polio casualty mentioned briefly on p.108, Arnie Mesnikoff, who reappears in Part 3, "Reunion".
This grand novel is occasionally over-lyrical about Bucky's sporting prowess, charisma and sheer goodness. But the final pages depict an athlete preparing, witnessed by a crowd of children, for an unforgettable series of ever further javelin throws, which inspired young Arnie, aged 12 at the time, to reconstruct, recreate and write this story.
Perfect book for discussion groups because of the guilt, the love, and the struggle to interpret what God had in mind to create and unleash polio so harshly among innocents... Bucky's final judgment of God is damning: not a trinity but a twosome, a sick f*** and an evil genius. Great novel.