When He Was Good
Phillip Roth. The Plot Against America. Houghton Mifflin. October 2004.
What a strange book Philip Roth has written. As everyone knows by now, it’s about the election of a Nazi sympathizer to the presidency of the United States. Yet it’s not a comedy—which is how one might expect Roth to handle this particular plot. It’s also not a tragedy, which is what Roth has been writing in recent years—tragedies that take in the whole arc of a man’s life and his struggles with the political extremes of his time—1950s McCarthyism (I Married a Communist), 1960s radicalism (American Pastoral), 1990s sexual morality and political correctness (The Human Stain).
This book takes place over only two years, from 1940 to 1942. It would seem to be a political novel, though one largely unconcerned with the lives of politicians, activists, or ideologues. Roth has imagined an alternate history in which, instead of returning Roosevelt to a third term in office, Americans elect Republican Charles Lindbergh, who is opposed to American involvement in the war and wins on the strength of his isolationist platform (and his celebrity). Lindbergh publicly praises Hitler and brings a note of anti-Semitism to his antiwar speeches, criticizing “the Jewish race” for its support of American intervention. It’s a note that the public quickly picks up and echoes.
Roth conjures political maneuvers, speeches, and euphemisms with evident relish, but his focus is not on the men involved in the Lindbergh coup—none of them are major characters in the novel. He follows, instead, the effect of the Lindbergh presidency on the Roth family of Newark, New Jersey: Herman, an insurance salesman; his wife, Bess; and their sons, Sandy and Philip. The Roths, who share the names and biographical details of Roth’s real-life family, are Jewish, as are most of their neighbors in the Weequahic section of Newark. Until Lindbergh’s election, Philip—born in the Roosevelt years to Roosevelt-loving parents—had never thought of his government as anything other than benign. He’s unprepared for the gloom that every new speech or policy initiative now brings to his parents, and he comes to think of Lindbergh’s presidency as “history’s outsized intrusion” into his family’s life.
Those policy initiatives have mainly to do with Jews. First, Lindbergh dreams up the Just Folks program, in which Jewish children are sent to work on farms in the South and Midwest for a summer. Thirteen-year-old Sandy happily goes to Kentucky and becomes a national spokesman for the program, to the anguish of Herman and Bess, who think that Just Folks is a first step in an anti-Semitic plot. They turn out to be right—in 1942, the Roths receive a letter from Herman’s employer, Metropolitan Life, informing them that they’ve been chosen to participate in a new government-organized program that gives “emerging American families” the “opportunity” to move to Middle America.
The “opportunity” turns out to be a mandatory reassignment—in the Roths’ case to Danville, Kentucky. Homestead 42, as the program is called, is meant to scatter much of the urban Jewish population across the South and Midwest. Most of the country and most other politicians support these programs—the only public voices of dissent come from columnist Walter Winchell and Roosevelt, who see ominous signs in Lindbergh’s attempts to disband Jewish neighborhoods. Herman wants to keep his reasonably well-paying job, but is affronted that Jews are being singled out for the program. There is also the suspicion, never far from the parents’ mind, that something more violent is on the horizon, and this largely unspoken fear trickles into Philip’s consciousness as well.
Lindbergh disappears at the end of 1942 without having carried out any more sinister plans against the Jews (he goes down in his plane; there are rumors of Jewish and Nazi plots, but he is never found dead or alive again). Roosevelt is elected back into office and the flow of history resumes as we know it, though not before Winchell is murdered and anti-Semitic mobs kill dozens of people across the country.
Life eventually returns to normal in Weequahic, but the Lindbergh years are profoundly unsettling for Philip. His ordinary childhood fears of losing his parents become exaggerated, so that when his next-door neighbor dies of cancer, Philip becomes convinced that it’s his own father’s body that paramedics are wheeling out of the building under a sheet. “Yes of course—my father had committed suicide. He couldn’t take any more of Lindbergh and what Lindbergh was letting the Nazis do to the Jews of Russia and what Lindbergh had done to our family right here.”
It’s Philip himself, of course, who can hardly stand the changes that have come over his family. His cousin Alvin, who went off to fight for the Canadians against Hitler, loses a leg, and his political ideals, in battle; he comes back to Newark with a horrifying scabbed-over stump and spends most of his time shooting craps in the schoolyard. Herman decides to leave Met Life rather than move to Kentucky. He has to take a job driving a delivery truck for his brother, a wholesaler and a rich, bullying macher whom Herman always swore he’d never work for. Sandy, who had looked forward to moving to Kentucky, feuds with their parents over what he sees as their shtetl paranoia. Perhaps most stunning of all, Philip sees his normally gentle mother slap Sandy—twice—in the course of an argument. “‘She doesn’t know what she’s doing,’ I thought, ‘She’s somebody else—everybody is.’”
Roth regularly reminds us that Philip has been forced to grow up too fast, that he has been shocked by the sight of his parents fearful and uncertain, that these two years have forever changed the way he sees his family. The child even develops a hysterical illness. He’s laid up in bed for six days with a serious fever, which Roth describes as “that not uncommon childhood ailment called why-can’t-it-be-the-way-it-was.”
The plot of The Plot starts to seem like an elaborate setup for what is, essentially, a familiar (if terrifying) childhood experience—the child’s first intimations that his parents are fallible. As for the business with the Nazis, it seems like a story young Philip himself might have made up, his imagination captured by reports of the war in Europe—a story that, like many childhood fantasies, is less an expression of his interest in world politics than his desires and frustrations regarding his family.