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.
The character Philip Roth made his debut in 1988, nearly thirty years after his author, the man of the same name, began publishing books. The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography is an account of several important stages in Roth’s life: his childhood in a lower-middle-class Jewish section of Newark; his years as an undergraduate at Bucknell; a difficult first marriage; and the writing of Portnoy’s Complaint, the novel that made him not only famous, but notorious. The Facts is prefaced with a letter from Roth to his character, Nathan Zuckerman, the hero of several previous novels. Roth asks Zuckerman if the enclosed memoir is any good. He’s nervous about this first attempt “to demythologize myself and play it straight,” and wonders whether he should publish the book, given that it “would leave me feeling exposed in a way I don’t particularly wish to be exposed,” and present as well “the problem of exposing others.” In a thirty-page letter that closes the book, Zuckerman advises against publication: “In this book you are not permitted to tell what it is you tell best: kind, discreet, careful . . . no, this isn’t you at your most interesting.” He’s particularly critical of Roth’s treatment of his early years: “you’ve begun to make where you came from look like a serene, desirable, pastoral haven, a home that was a cinch to master, when, I suspect, it was more like a detention house you were tunneling out of.”
Zuckerman is hard on the book (he is, after all, afraid of being out of a job), which on the whole doesn’t shrink from self-examination. But it’s true that Roth’s recollections of his Newark childhood are gentle and fond. Not implausible, not saccharine, but so wholly benign that it’s hard to imagine these recollections as the starting point for a novel.
Subsequent books about “Philip Roth” play with the fears expressed in Roth’s letter to Zuckerman. If he demythologized himself in The Facts, he remythologized himself in Deception, a novel about “Philip Roth” and his adulterous lover, who has to hide “Roth’s” new novel from her husband because she is an adulterous character in it, and in Operation Shylock, when he turned the confessional novel on its head by “confessing” to be a secret agent for the Mossad. He also wrote Patrimony, a memoir about his father’s illness and death that is tender and serious and far more frank in its portrait of Herman Roth than the short sketches in The Facts.
With The Plot he returns, for the first time, to those unpromisingly cheerful scenes of his childhood. This time, the setting is anything but benign, and the anti-Semitic threat has allowed Roth to fill out a novel, pushing the family and their neighbors to their emotional limits. The political contrivances also allow Roth the same gentle, forgiving tone he used to describe his family in The Facts. The stifling conventions Zuckerman referred to in his letter are irrelevant in these grim circumstances. Weequahic as a whole is as fragile and imperiled as the Roth family—and as steeped in pathos. After they learn that Lindbergh has been nominated at the 1940 Republican convention, the anxiety and anger among Philip’s neighbors
carried every last family on the block out into the street at nearly five in the morning. Entire families known to me previously only fully dressed in daytime clothing were wearing pajamas and nightdresses under their bathrobes and milling around in their slippers at dawn as if driven from their homes by an earthquake.
In the midst of such uncertainty, the parents’ attempts to go about the business of taking care of their children, their orderliness and idealism, and their small acts of courage have great poignancy. Through the course of the novel they become more frightened, more vulnerable, and correspondingly more admirable for their self-possession. When the Roths overhear anti-Semitic, pro-Lindbergh remarks in a Washington, DC, cafeteria, Herman won’t let the family be intimidated into leaving; in an overly loud voice, for the benefit of the anti-Semite, he gives the boys a lecture about the glories of Woodrow Wilson and Louis Brandeis and the need to oust Lindbergh.
Bess, for her part, shows remarkable forbearance. The emotional climax of the book is a long distance call between her and nine-year-old Seldon Wishnow in Kentucky. Seldon is the Roths’ former next-door neighbor and Philip’s nemesis, an awkward, clingy boy whose family was reassigned to Danville and actually moved there. Seldon’s mother is late coming home from work one evening, and Bess walks him through the preparation of his dinner. Nothing could be more prosaic than Bess’s patient instructions to “use a spoon and a fork and a napkin and a knife,” except that in this case anti-Semitic riots are breaking out across the country and Seldon is nearly catatonic from worry about his mother.
Yet while such situations are moving, Roth seems unsure how to animate his characters when they are driven by fear rather than—as in earlier books—exuberance. Herman Roth’s idealism seems colorless next to that of Nathan Zuckerman’s father, who sends vitriolic letters of protest to politicians—every day. Herman also lacks the intensity of Swede Levov’s father in American Pastoral, the patriarch who founded the family glove factory and “who neglected no one in his crusade against…the abiding problem of human error and insufficiency.” The Herman of The Plot even seems bland compared to the Herman of Patrimony, who recounts Newark lore to every startled medical professional he meets in the course of his treatments and says that the one good thing about death is that “it gets the sons of bitches too.”
The Plot’s Herman Roth bears the burden of always being right. His impassioned speeches fall into a void—we’re not likely to disagree with his premise (anti-Semitism is pernicious, equality under the law is fundamental), and there’s no one to argue with him in this book, no perverse logic of a Pipik or a Delphine Roux or a Jerry Levov. Lindbergh is a remote and mysterious figure; his euphemistic political speeches tell us nothing about his actual plans, let alone his reasoning and motivations. Without a human-size adversary, the Roths are up against the vague, amorphous, overwhelming phenomenon of American anti-Semitism itself. In moral terms, it’s a battle they can’t lose, and they are less interesting for their victory. Most of the parents’ words and actions are irreproachably selfless, and the narrator is ready to remind us that any display of bad temper is justified by their circumstances.
For the first time, Roth actually seems hobbled by some sense of obligation to his characters. This is unexpected. Roth has written thoughtfully, and often, about these very obligations and the problems they pose for writers. In his novels he has created parents who are oppressive because of the very intensity of their hopes for their beloved children. He has also written about how difficult it is for a writer to set such fictional parents loose in the world, especially when they share the biographical details—but not necessarily the temperament—of his own devoted set. The nicest parents are the hardest ones to leave, and the hardest ones to write about; both acts feel like a betrayal, as we know from the plight of poor guilt-wracked Zuckerman, whose previously affectionate father disowns him after he writes about Jews in a negative light and whose salacious, Portnoy-esque book, Carnovsky, may or may not have been responsible for his father’s fatal stroke.
In his later books, Roth moved away from depicting the clash of Jewish generations. It now feels as if he’s signed a contract with himself: he’ll return to the scenes of his youth, but only if he makes absolutely certain—through every possible trick of plotting and perspective—that he doesn’t have to depict, foreshadow, or in any way refer to this clash again.
We can understand the impulse. Why, at this late date, betray these people again in some new way? Especially given that the American Jewish ghettoes really did dissolve—under happy circumstances, to be sure, but still, the old neighborhoods turned out to be a fragile ecosystem that did not survive more than a couple generations of the Jews’ own striving. And the Jews of Roth’s generation are the first in a long time who can be collectively nostalgic for their childhood days, which were comfortable and disaster-free and certainly no worse than the days that have followed. But it’s a different matter for Roth to indulge the nostalgia in print. In the past, however much his autobiographical characters agonized over their obligations to family, their greater loyalty was to art.
Describing Herman’s generation of fathers, Roth writes that “ardor, for these men, was all they had to go on. What their Gentile cousins called pushiness was generally just this—the ardor that was everything.” Ardor is, of course, Roth’s great subject. He has written most often of sexual ardor, but also of the ardor for work, for fame, for trouble. The fictional characters who are of his parents’ generation spend their ardor on making money and taking an inordinate interest in the behavior, education, and future of their children. The characters of Roth’s own generation yearn not for security, but the very opposite—their ardor propels them away from family and tribe, toward (they hope) a deeper form of self-realization than is available in the old neighborhood.
Ardor is the antithesis of fear, and Roth has imagined it in some of its most florid—its most American—manifestations, such as could only be plausible against the backdrop of relative political stability and prosperity and social mobility for Jews. Several of Roth’s protagonists have contemplated the stark divergence in the fates of American and European Jews in the century. Here their fates threaten to merge, and we look to The Plot for some hint of what would have become of the energy and audacity of American Jews in an inhospitable climate—in other words, what would have become of Philip Roth. To put it another way, The Plot seems poised to answer the question that was famously put to Roth by a hostile Jewish reader who felt that his early work portrayed Jews in a negative light: “Mr. Roth, would you write the same stories you’ve written if you were living in Nazi Germany?”
In fact, The Plot gives no answer. Roth doesn’t even acknowledge the relevance of that unintentionally hilarious question. The greatest disappointment of the book is the feeling that Roth just won’t play—he doesn’t go near any of the comic or metafictional possibilities of his extravagant plot, instead writing the book somberly and straight, as though Philip Roth—and “Philip Roth”—had never before tangled with the subject of anti-Semitism.
It’s true that Roth hasn’t been funny lately. The humor largely went out of his work after Sabbath’s Theater, when he turned to writing historical tragedies. But never has the humor been so sorely needed. Roth’s voice is subdued almost beyond recognition. While the character called Philip Roth has always been calmer than other protagonists, in this book he is especially so—there is little of the agitated, cajoling, satirical, self-critical voice that we know from previous adventures. The narrator is shy and self-effacing, mostly limiting himself to the child’s point of view. He never refers to his adult life or to the intervening years since the early 1940s.(Needless to say, there is not much sex.) Even more than characters like Herman Roth, our narrator seems drained of vital animating force—the ardor that is everything.
As for little Philip, he could be almost any precocious, sensitive boy. Like our narrator, young Philip is unsettling for his very distance from that composite character we’ve come to think of as Philip Roth. But for young Philip this anonymity is appropriate. There’s some oblique truth in it about the peculiar anxiety of being a child, the puzzling, unnerving blankness at the center of even a relatively happy childhood. How terrifyingly incomplete this Philip is, at the age before ardor enters into his relationship with the world. It makes us miss the Roth we know—comic, bawdy, profane, the self-described author of extremist fiction. If only he were telling us little Philip’s story, instead of this narrator with the half-formed personality, as unnerving in its way as cousin Alvin’s missing leg.