This was this month’s selection for a local book club, and because I’m making an attempt at reading some traditionally lauded authors like Zadie Smith, I thought I’d give this book a try. Nemesis takes place in the 1940s in Newark, NJ during a polio outbreak. Bucky Cantor, our protagonist, is working at a summer day camp and finds himself watching his campers fall to polio one by one.
Bucky’s story is driven by guilt. Guilt that he can’t help his campers. Guilt that he leaves the inner city camp to work as a counselor out in the Poconos, with his fiance. He leaves his boys to save himself, to get some fresh air, to ensure his life will go on. There’s also guilt that his poor eyesight kept him out of the draft; his friends and colleagues are out serving his country while he’s literally watching his friends and neighbors die at home, of a terrible disease.
It was an interesting character study of Bucky. Because while his country was at war, and his friends and family and campers were dying of polio, his main foe was himself. His guilt. His inability to get over himself, and his potential role in the polio epidemic, and focus on others. His guilt was all consuming, and it ruined him in the end. It wasn’t the war, or polio, or rejection by others. His sad life was a direct result of his actions.
The main issue I had with this book was despite the descriptive language, I found myself bored. Part of the appeal of a novel like this is that tragedy is inevitable, and there’s a certain tension you feel waiting for the tragedies you know must be coming to happen. But because everything seemed pre-determined, and there was so much foreshadowing, it just felt kind of boring. And there was minimal character development outside of Bucky, so there wasn’t a lot to keep me interested.