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Review: 'Nemesis' by Philip Roth

Did they bring it- Those Italian punks who came to the neighborhood and spit on the sidewalk- Or did it arrive along with the fetid air blowing in from a nearby town. Maybe it was in the hot dogs. The water- The heat-

A plague - polio - has descended on the Weequahic section of Newark during the sizzling summer of 1944. Children are becoming paralyzed and dying. The terror is made worse by the disease's sudden, invisible, unpredictable onset. No one knows what to do.

With Nemesis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26), Philip Roth takes us deep into this milieu of fear. It is the latest in a string a short, late-career, almost parable-like novels (Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling) with big themes and sharp focus.

The central agonizer in this modern morality tale is Bucky Cantor. A strapping straight arrow, he runs the summer playground program for a bunch of kids in the Jewish neighborhood. Poor eyesight is the only flaw in this finest of young Americans. He can't help but feel guilty as a 4-F while his closest friends battle their way from Normandy to Germany.

Bucky, whose mother died in childbirth and who never met his ne'er-do-well father, was raised by noble, honest grandparents. He is a paragon of virtue and hard work. Everybody's neighborhood favorite, Bucky elicits worship from his young charges.

And then they start dying. In a heartbreaking situation (one boy's funeral is particularly devastating), Bucky struggles with deciding what's the right thing and how to do it. He perseveres, but inevitably this strong man begins to become consumed by doubt. He loses faith in what he now perceives as a cruel God.

Against his primal instinct to stay with his kids, Bucky decides to join his beautiful girlfriend as a counselor at a summer camp in the Poconos. The contrast between the two worlds is stunning. It's not just the physical beauty, the lake and the cool breezes. Indian Hill camp, above all, is a place without fear. It has its own myths and lore (based on Native Americans), which seem to make it impervious to the travails of modern life.

Roth has always been terrific at rendering the times and places close to his own youth. And in Nemesis, he masterly contrasts the sweaty, close world of all-day ball games and nights spent on front stoops with affluence and young love developing in the cool countryside.

For Bucky, though, there is really no escape from the danger he fled in the city. The effects of one summer are with these characters for the rest of their lives.

Nemesis is a quick, propulsive read full of chiseled storytelling. It artfully belies the obvious research on polio and Newark's official public health response to it.

However, it will be read and remembered as a compelling musing on fate and guilt and God (with overtones of Job and even Jonah) by a master whose productivity and strength - at 77 - is undiminished.

John Barron is the publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times.