- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pp.
Life in a Time of Polio
Bucky Cantor, that most stolid and reliable shaper of young men’s character, has a slight misunderstanding of the concept of nobility. If the ancient Greek trope that character is destiny is true, then Bucky ought to be more of a hero than he is. But his inability to understand the limitations of heroism and to accept that there are some things in life heroes can’t change devour Bucky’s adult life before it has really even taken flight. There may be some spoilers in the following paragraphs.
Bucky Cantor is the grandchild of decent, hard-working Jewish emigrants from the former Russian empire. His parents are absent from his life, his mother dead at his birth and his scheming, criminal father voluntarily AWOL after Bucky’s grandfather, in response to the father’s threats to file suit to regain custody, tracks down and beats the interloper into a sidewalk settlement that requires neither judge, jury nor attorneys to legalize it.
Grandfather is the looming presence in Bucky’s life and in his head. He measures himself against the old man, now dead, whenever he faces the dilemma of what the right action is in any situation. Roth summons a perfect image of Bucky: “His was the cast-iron, wear-resistant, strikingly bold face of a sturdy young man you could rely on.”
Bucky, however, has feet of clay when it comes to the subject of reliability. In boxing parlance, the young athlete and teacher leads with his jaw, which makes those situations where reliability and nobility cannot remedy suffering — situations we all face too commonly in the real adult world — opportunities where Bucky should grow up, but can’t.
And it’s a dangerous time to be a naif. Weequahic, the Jewish section of Newark, New Jersey, waits impatiently in the summer of 1944 for the sons it has given up to the U.S. military. Bucky, exempt from service because of his near-blindness, chafes under the burden of not being in Europe, fighting side-by-side with his best childhood friends to rid Normandy of its German oppressors.
Weequahic has been particularly hard-hit by the summer’s polio epidemic. Bucky, stuck supervising his school playground’s summer programs for kids, is forced to watch in horror as his students randomly sicken and die. There is nothing he can do to stop the epidemic; he cannot bear to accept the reality of his absolute helplessness to fight the gruesome disease. Most of us over the age of 18 have faced similar circumstances, perhaps not as dramatically stark as those that bedevil Bucky, but bad enough to make us question the order of the universe, the “problem of pain” as C.S. Lewis called it.
Bucky, who has little insight into his psyche save for measuring himself against his grandfather’s notions of doing the right thing, comes unstrung. After fleeing Newark and enduring another round of tragedy, the sturdy young man you could rely on turns into one of the walking wounded, perenially unable to come to terms with the reality that nobility and five cents could get you a cup of ersatz coffee in wartime Newark.
Roth’s work in the latter part of his career has often been extraordinary, thematically dexterous and verbally precise. The moral complexities his characters face, often without success, are things any American can recognize from his or her own adult life. And his sense of compassion for the most undone of heroes is something our culture would do well to embrace.
And, although “Nemesis” is in no respect a young adult novel, I think older teens will identify with Bucky and the challenges he faces. I would also recommend the novel to novice writers so they can see what power resides in a writing style stripped of verbal gymnastics.
“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,/They kill us for their sport,” Gloucester remarks in “King Lear” after being tricked into murdering his son and then blinded by his enemies. Bucky Cantor is no Gloucester. The nemesis of the book’s title is not polio, but Bucky’s own misconceptions about what role nobility should play in adult life away from the playground. The price he pays for not vanquishing that nemesis is heart-breaking.
Sam Stowe is a writer and poet who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. He needs to get a flu shot.