When Roth published this novel, he was 77. Like most old men he returns to the happier times of his life, when he was young. So his author, a young boy in the 1940ties, tells the story of his then gym teacher and playground director in Newark. It is a scorching hot summer, and the boys in this Jewish community spend their holidays on the playground, where the twenty something director Bucky Cantor, whom they all love and adore, looks after them and protects them from a group of Italian boys who spit at them to spread the polio disease. Like in every summer it breaks out in the area. When several boys fall ill and die or are left paralysed and crippled for live just like their then president Roosevelt, Bucky stays with them and keeps the playground open under his watchful eyes.
But his lover, a teacher at his school, who spends the summer holidays at a youth camp in the mountains, begs Bucky to come and join her and thus get away from the deadly virus.
Against his better judgement he follows her and all seems well. But the title of the book prepares the reader for the worst. So in the end, Bucky has brought the virus to the camp, a student falls ill and dies, Bucky is tested positive and spends months in clinics. His legs are in braces for the rest of his miserable life, he loses his job, refuses to be together with his fiancee any more. The author meets him again years after. He also had polio that fateful summer, but has recovered more or less. He wins Bucky´s confidence and the story of his doomed life pours out of him, only to be written down by the author.
For once Roth is less fascinated by his own precious self, but tells the story of another human being. With the Covid pandemic still around it is a heart-breaking read.