Wednesday, May 5, 2004

Book Review: The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

This review originally appeared in the Jerusalem Report, 2004

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin; 400 pp; $26
by Harvey Blume

In 1959, Philip Roth, then 26 years old, submitted his story "Defender of the Faith," to The New Yorker, which rejected it. In a letter to Roth, New Yorker editor William Shawn explained that though the author's "prose style was sure, as was his pacing, and other hints of future mastery were evident enough," the "ethnically charged" content of "Defender of the Faith" was not the sort of thing the magazine cared to showcase in its fiction. Roth then submitted the tale to Commentary magazine, then a journal of liberal Jewish opinion not much noted for cultivating literary talent, where it appeared.

The story, in brief, concerns a Jewish conscript into the American army after the defeat of Germany in World War II but before the surrender of Japan. The conscript makes repeated protestations of his faith to his sergeant, a decorated veteran of battle in the European theater who also happens to be Jewish, and who eventually realizes that these appeals to a shared heritage are nothing more than ploys by the recruit to secure special treatment, especially exemption from combat. The sergeant's reaction to being manipulated in this way is a denouement best left to the reader to discover.

The media at large took little notice of the "Defender of the Faith" or of the lively debate it kindled in letters to the editor of Commentary. One writer wondered why, so soon after the murder of six million Jews, a writer like Roth "could think of nothing better to do than to invent Jews as deceitful and cunning as this conscript," thus reinforcing the "lousy opinion of our people already rife among the gentiles."

Roth found stout support, however, in a letter by one Nathan Zuckerman, who thought Roth's grasp of "varied Jewish types showed wisdom beyond his years." This loquacious defender of the "Defender of the Faith" was particularly taken by the portrayal of the sergeant, a man he deemed "more 'heroic than any Jewish fictional character this side of Ari Ben Canaan" -- the paragon of Leon Uris's "Exodus". Zuckerman urged Roth to follow the story up with an "extended treatment of a home-grown, all-American Ari Ben Canaan, an Ari Ben Canaan of Newark or the Bronx rather than of Palestine, a Ben Canaan who could hit, pitch, field and, maybe even, though not known for speed, steal a base or two."

Roth liked this idea well enough to dedicate his next book -- the novella "Ben Canaan at the Wall" -- to Zuckerman. "Ben Canaan at the Wall" had hilarious moments, to be sure -- especially the attempt by the main character to explore Talmudic logic with Casey Stengel, then manager of the New York Yankees -- but the decisive judgment came, once again, from The New Yorker, this time in the form of a brief review by its staff writer and baseball aficionado, Roger Angell. Angell opined: "Roth ought to leave the Jews alone. He's not so good at them. Others do them better. Roth should stick -- dare I say so? -- entirely to ball."

This, we now know, was the turning point for Philip Roth, the reason why, after making aliyah, he has established himself as our indispensable chronicler-cum-explicator of the American game. It is difficult, subtracting Roth from the picture, to see how baseball would ever have taken root among Israelis to the extent that we were able to field a respectable nine at the Athens Olympics. That Israel can now play ball, as it were, with the United States, will deepen the bonds of sympathy between the two countries. Some Americans boo Ariel Sharon, but all cheered Sandy Koufax.

God knows how things would have turned out, not just in athletics but in political affairs, if Roth's story been accepted at The New Yorker, where the kind of stink among American Jews its far greater distribution would inevitably have aroused would have curdled the hopes of any young man, even one as uncommonly gifted and ambitious as Philip Roth.

* * *

THE PRECEDING IS HOW A counterfactual account of Philip Roth's career might read, such an account being one that varies an element in a complex scenario (in this case the venue for the publication of "Defender of the Faith") to see how the whole plays out. Counterfactual thinking embraces the butterfly effect -- the notion that relatively small changes in initial conditions can have vast impact on results. Roth has played with counter-identities before, as in "The Counterlife" and "Operation Shylock." In fact, one of his hallmarks as a writer is that he is all but bedeviled by counter-possibilities for his own life. But his latest novel, "The Plot Against America" is the first in which he ventures into altering a variable of global import. The change in initial conditions he proposes for the world is this: In 1940, Charles Lindbergh, renowned aviator and Nazi sympathizer, runs for president of the USA on a simple platform: "Vote for Lindbergh or vote for war."

Like the real Lindbergh, Roth's character believes that America making war on Germany would serve the interests of none but the English and the Jews, and vehemently opposes American blood being shed on behalf of either. In "The Plot Against America," Lindbergh flies his storied "Spirit of St. Louis" around the country during the campaign, making FDR seem old hat and winning by a landslide. As Lindbergh's presidency veers toward dictatorship, anti-Semitism, for a while couched in euphemisms, becomes state policy.

Roth records: "Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I wouldn't have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn't been president or if I hadn't been the offspring of Jews."

* * *

Before going further, it would be useful to de-counterfactualize my own account of Roth's career. In reality, Roth did publish "Defender of the Faith" (collected in his book of stories, "Goodbye Columbus"), in The New Yorker, where the storm of protest it evoked took both the editors and the author by surprise. (One rabbi, for example, asked: "What is being done to silence this man? Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.") Stunned, at first, by this level of vitriol, Roth emerged case-hardened from the affair. Ten years down the road, with "Portnoy's Complaint" (1969), he told his detractors, in effect: You want something to yell bloody murder about? Try this.

Roth later observed that the "uncensored shamelessness" of the psychoanalysis he was undergoing in New York during the writing of "Portnoy's Complaint" helped generate its climate. So, too, he recollected, did scenes he witnessed of "angry defiance and hysterical opposition" to the war in Vietnam. Roth even believed that what he saw as the overbearing vulgarity of President Lyndon Johnson's personality helped bring the Portnoy mixture to its boil.

In short, Portnoy's famed intercourse with liver was even less innocent -- less a matter of pure adolescent drive -- than it might have seemed. Bits of Freud, Marx, and LBJ were thrown in with the raging hormones. That piece of liver, then, is symbolic of Roth's method. We don't usually think of him as writing historical novels -- as we do, say, the E. L. Doctorow of "Ragtime" -- but, in fact, he can't keep his nose out of cultural and political affairs. And there's no novelist better at showing how profoundly the Zeitgeist informs and shapes the lives of his characters.

Roth's last three full-length novels -- "American Pastoral" (1997), "I Married a Communist" (1998) and "The Human Stain" (2000) -- constitute a trilogy that is among the finest achievements in American letters, drawing on the history of the United States from the end of World War II, through the sixties, on to the last years of the Clinton presidency. "The Plot Against America" differs from these books by reaching further back into the past while simultaneously posing a troubling question about the future: Is a time coming in America when civil liberties will be annulled and Jews blamed for instigating a war that serves only their interests?

As in other recent work, Roth establishes an initial atmosphere of security for his characters only to undermine it. The scene is again a Jewish section of Newark where, at a local newsstand, "ten times more customers bought the *Racing Form* than the Yiddish daily, the *Forvitz.*" The Jewishness of these people, Roth writes, does not need to be affirmed by Yiddish, Hebrew or much "mention of 'Adonoy.'" Their being Jews was, like their being Americans, "as fundamental as having arteries and veins."

We first see Philip Roth as a 7-year-old, who "like millions of kids [inspired] by the country's foremost philatelist, President Roosevelt" is the proud owner of a stamp collection. Then Lindbergh comes to power, instituting the Office of American Absorption, the purpose of which was to help minorities "become further incorporated into the larger society" -- though, according to the narrator, the only "minority the OAA appeared to take a serious interest in . . . was ours." Through the OAA, Sandy, Philip's older brother, spends a summer in Kentucky, returning tan, fit, a lover of rural life and of President Lindbergh, which brings him into bitter conflict with Herman Roth, his father.

For Herman, the gentile enthusiasm for Lindbergh can only mean: "They live in a dream, and we live in a nightmare." Sandy derides this as exactly the kind of reaction to be expected from "frightened, paranoid ghetto Jews," which does nothing to reassure Philip, who's afraid to fall asleep since the stamps he dreams of now sport the face of Adolf Hitler.

Roth lets the full import of Lindbergh's administration sink in slowly, leaving room to wonder if Jews are not, in fact, overreacting. Even after the 1942 Iceland Understanding between the United States and Germany, and von Ribbentrop's reception at the White House ball to celebrate it, there is the ghost of possibility that nothing like German-style anti-Semitism style is in the offing. Could it be that Sandy is right in thinking that with their endless, unpatriotic Lindbergh-bashing, Jews are just helping to bring it on themselves?

Walter Winchell, the Jewish radio personality and columnist, is the biggest Lindbergh-basher of them all. His continued exertions prove to Herman Roth that democracy is healthy enough to justify not uprooting his family and taking them to Canada. But then, Winchell is murdered and American versions of Kristallnacht spread across the land.

At this point there is a wrinkle in the plot that whips Roth's counter-history back into line with the history we know. The details are unconvincing and constitute one serious problem with the novel. The other problem is that Roth pays next to no attention to the fate of blacks in the racist and fascist take-over he describes. These flaws put the book a cut or two below the level of the preceding trilogy.

There is no getting around the second problem. But the first can be thought of in a way that does less discredit to the novelist, and his formidable nose for Zeitgeist. Perhaps he turned back not because he lacked the nerve to follow his counterfactual premise out to its end, but because he felt that having created a past with unmistakable parallels to the present, he could trust readers to come to their own conclusions about the future.

Harvey Blume, who writes frequently on culture and the arts, is the coauthor of 'Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo' (St. Martin's 1992).

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