An angry man
A wartime polio epidemic takes its toll on a tough, caring teacher in Philip Roth’s latest
At first glance, and for much of its brief length, Philip Roth’s new novel seems a departure from his sagas of intricate, glittering obsession — sexual, artistic, racial, metaphysical — or simply his tooth-marked attacks on the human condition. Grippingly and with documentary expertise, it tells a story set in the devastating 1944 polio epidemic, detailing its impact upon a modest Jewish neighborhood in Newark. Quite unlike the usual Roth pattern, everyone in it is uncomplicatedly good; none more so than its tough, devoted protagonist, Bucky Cantor, a physical education teacher and summer playground director who must cope with the spreading damage among his young charges and their families.
It is only a seeming departure, though. The title is the key. That a polio epidemic was a heart-breaking tragedy is obvious — and with what force and intelligence Roth takes us through it. But nemesis? A punishment? For what, by whom? And by the end we are back, with a direly transformed Bucky, to the Rothian rebel launching his non serviam protest against his world, his fate, himself, God.
Bucky comes out of hard times. His mother died giving birth to him; his father, a gambler and crook, was jailed and not heard from again. He was taken in and brought up by loving grandparents, his shopkeeper grandfather a mentor and model in grit, valor, and a burning sense of duty.
A powerful all-round athlete with a mystical belief in physical prowess, Bucky is a strict but caring teacher, revered by his students. And on the dilapidated playground — all that the down-at-the-heels neighborhood can afford — he instills both discipline and a sense of achievement in boys who otherwise would have nothing to do through a long searing summer.
Roth writes vividly of heat-choked streets and cramped houses in the days before air conditioning, where the residents sit out in the evenings to catch a breeze that rarely arrives. Then comes the inexorable spread of the disease. One, then several more of the playground kids are stricken; two die. All kinds of rumors go round. Bucky urges the fearful parents not to panic, arguing that being outdoors with something to do is the best thing for their children. Terrified that he will get sick and thinking of himself as on wartime duty (two of his friends are fighting in Europe; his bad eyes, to his shame, had disqualified him), he resists the urging of Marcia, his fiancée, to take the swimming instructor’s job at the camp in the Poconos where she works.
But the slow toll among the boys, his inability to rally them from growing depression, the accusations by their initially trusting parents that he endangers them by continuing the playground games; all these eat away at him. A getaway weekend at the Jersey Shore, instead of fortifying his resolve — Roth is devilishly clever — weakens it. He takes the camp job, braving the contempt of his Newark boss.
Not all the writing up to this point has been as effective as the depiction of polio’s terrifying advance and of Bucky’s initial can-do defiance. His scenes with Marcia are sweet but bland; surely Roth has never written of sex with such incorporeal rosiness. But the haven offered by the mountain camp radiates a palpable happiness. “I live! I live!” he feels.
That polio soon breaks is no surprise to the reader, nor that Bucky is cripplingly stricken. The novel now skips several decades ahead, its narrator revealed as Arnie, one of the playground boys who had fallen victim, yet despite severe disability has made a successful life for himself. Bucky, by contrast, has given up, rejected Marcia, and taken a clerk’s job at the post office.
All this is told in a 40-page coda in which Bucky, in a series of conversations with Arnie, emerges in full Rothian rant. The reader may feel that everything that has gone before, fine as so much of it is, has been a kind of authorial bait-and-switch. And yet this coda is written with great power.
Bucky insists that his polio is not tragedy but punishment. With Arnie, and in a stunning dialogue with Marcia, he goes back and forth between blaming himself as the Typhoid Mary of playground and camp; and blaming a malevolent God. Marcia begs him to marry her; when he refuses, saying she must begin a new life, unburdened, she accuses him of false nobility. “You’re always holding yourself accountable when you’re not. Either it’s terrible God who is accountable, or it’s terrible Bucky Cantor who is accountable, when in fact, accountability belongs to neither.” And Arnie, calling him “a maniac of the why,” says that “he has to convert tragedy into guilt.”
But his coda has a coda of its own, and it is a perhaps unique Rothian absolution of an obsessive protagonist. In a passage of remarkable beauty we see Bucky in pre-polio days demonstrating the javelin throw to his playground boys. There is the slow, careful preparation, the successive stretchings, the tensely solemn approach, and the arcing flight. It is a ritual vesting for a transfiguring religious ceremony.
Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.