by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 280 pp., $26.00
Between 1894 and 1952 the United States suffered a series of epidemic outbreaks of poliomyelitis. The worst of these, in 1916, claimed six thousand lives. For another forty years polio would remain a substantial threat to public health. The development of a vaccine changed all that: by 1994 the disease had been eradicated not only in the United States but in the whole Western Hemisphere.
Polio has been around for millennia as a contagious viral disease. Before the twentieth century it was an endemic infection of early childhood, causing fever, headaches, and nausea, no worse. In only a tiny minority of cases did it assume full-blown form and attack the nervous system, leading to paralysis or even death.
The mutation of polio into a serious disease can be blamed on improved standards of hygiene. The polio virus is passed on via human feces (the virus breeds in the small intestine). A regime of hand-washing, regular baths, and clean underwear cuts down transmission. The catch is that clean habits rob communities of resistance to the virus; and when nonresistant older children and adults contract the disease, it tends to take an extreme form. Thus the very measures that subdued diseases like cholera, typhus, tuberculosis, and diphtheria made poliomyelitis a threat to life.
The paradox that while strict hygiene lessens the risk to individuals, it weakens resistance and turns the disease lethal, was not widely grasped in the heyday of polio. In afflicted communities, eruptions of polio would trigger parallel and no less morbid eruptions of anxiety, despair, and misdirected rage.
The psychopathology of populations under attack by diseases whose transmission is ill understood was explored by Daniel Defoe in his Journal of the Plague Year, which pretends to be the journal of a survivor of the bubonic plague that decimated London in 1665. Defoe records all the moves typical of plague communities: superstitious attention to signs and symptoms; vulnerability to rumor; the stigmatization and isolation (quarantining) of suspect families and groups; the scapegoating of the poor and the homeless; the extermination of whole classes of suddenly abhorred animals (dogs, cats, pigs); the fragmenting of the city into healthy and sick zones, with aggressive policing of boundaries; flight from the diseased center, never mind that contagion might thereby be spread far and wide; and rampant mistrust of all by all, amounting to a general collapse of social bonds.
Albert Camus knew Defoe’s Journal: in his novel The Plague (La Peste), written during the war years, he quotes from it and generally imitates the matter-of-fact tone of Defoe’s narrator toward the catastrophe unfolding around him. Nominally about an outbreak of bubonic plague in an Algerian city, The Plague also invites a reading as being about what the French called “the brown plague” of the German occupation,…
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Mr. Cantor is an orphan who was raised by his grandparents. His grandfather gave him the nickname of Bucky because of his confidence and determination in the face of negative circumstances. He is a fine athlete despite his short height and poor eyesight (which have kept him out of the military). Mr. Canter recently graduated from college with a degree in physical education and has been hired as a coach at a local school. He sees his occupation as more than coaching boys at games:
He wanted to teach these kids to excel in sports as well as in their studies and to value sportsmanship and what could be learned through competition on a playing field...toughness and determination, to be physically brave and physically fit and never to allow themselves to be pushed around.
Mr. Cantor’s unconventional background helps inspire his steadfastness and solidity. His mother died in childbirth, and his father was a thief who went to prison. Mr. Cantor is embarrassed by his father and grateful that his grandparents were able to provide a stable family for him. Yet he feels an absence that his grandparents, however loving, cannot completely fill:
Why was the genuine tenderness of a loving grandmother any less satisfying than the tenderness of a mother? It shouldn’t have been, and yet secretly he felt that it was—and secretly felt ashamed for harboring such a thought.
The evolution of Mr. Cantor’s beliefs works as the foundation for the novel’s plot. In the beginning of the book he is strong and assured, but as the panic of the epidemic grows, he becomes less confident in himself and in what he preaches to the boys. Mr. Cantor vacillates when the first wave of suffering touches him, but he stays true to what he believes. Then he surrenders when the suffering worsens and he is offered a way out. During his time at Indian Hill, Mr. Cantor seems willing to forget his ethical compass in exchange for happiness and freedom. But the recurrence of polio throws him into an abyss...
(The entire section is 861 words.)