Philip Roth's Jewish question

In his affecting new book, Roth's young hero abandons his Jewish upbringing for life in small town Ohio.

Published September 16, 2008 10:37AM (EDT)

In "The Plot Against America," Philip Roth imagined an alternative WW2-era USA in which President Charles Lindbergh launches a pogrom against Jewish citizens. In the author's latest novel, "Indignation," he has imagined an alternative Philip Roth: a young Jewish man who leaves Newark, N.J., in 1951 not for literary glory, as Roth did, but for a series of zero-sum face-offs with the WASP power establishment. In each book, the message is the same: Assimilation may at any moment be reversed. If it can ever be achieved.

Marcus Messner has his own reason for assimilating: He's still living at home, and his worrywart father is driving him crazy. "I had to get away," Marcus says, "before I killed him." So he transfers from the local university to Winesburg, a small liberal arts and engineering college in Ohio that bears little resemblance to Sherwood Anderson's story collection and no resemblance at all to Newark. Boys toss footballs on expansive green lawns, and the frat houses have "massive black studded doors," the better for excluding non-Christians. When Marcus takes a job pouring beer at the local inn, the local frat boys bellow: "Hey, Jew! Over here!"

On a campus that so prides itself on its sacred traditions, Jews have little hope of fighting their second-class status. But fight it Marcus does, in his stubborn and pugnacious way. He engages in a protracted battle with the dean over the university's chapel requirement, and he refuses to do what the faculty or his peers expect of him, whether it's getting drunk or joining a Jewish fraternity or trying out for the baseball team.

Marcus isn't the only outsider at Winesburg, but, being a solitary cuss, he can't make common cause with misfits like Bertram Flusser, a troubled young gay man whose oppositional stance is distilled in Malvolio's exit line from "Twelfth Night": "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you!" And speaking of "Twelfth Night," there's a sad girl named Olivia, "an ex-teenage drunk and inmate of a psychiatric sanatorium who'd failed at suicide with a razor blade, a daughter of divorced parents, and a Gentile to boot." Which makes her, by direct consequence, irresistible to someone like Marcus, especially when she proves to be more sexually experienced than he is. Soon, though, even this thread of happiness is jeopardized by the prevailing Midwest mores, and Marcus comes to realize he has exchanged his father's stranglehold for Winesburg's equally constricting rectitude, which is now "tyrannizing my life."

"Indignation" is almost comically well-titled: It's an angry little morality play about the harm men can do. Marcus comes to Winesburg trailing memories of his father's kosher butcher store, where he used to watch the local shochet slit chickens' throats and let the animals hang until the blood flowed out. ("It's as if he took a bucket of blood, as if he took several buckets, and poured them out all at once, because that's how fast blood gushes from the arteries onto the floor, a concrete floor with a drain in it. He stands there in boots, in blood up to his ankles despite the drain...") But even within the pastoral confines of Winesburg, blood is never too far from the surface. In the hands of sexually repressed young men, a simple snowball fight can quickly segue into mayhem. "Within an hour, they were hurling at one another not just snowballs but beer cans whose contents they'd guzzled down while they fought. There were flecks of red blood in the clean snow from where some of them had been cut by flying debris ... But their bleeding did nothing to dilute their ardor. The sight of their own blood in the white snow may even have been what provided the jolt to transform them from playful children recklessly delighting in the surprise of an unseasonable snowfall into a whooping army of mutineers..."

This violence echoes and prefigures the carnage happening overseas in Korea, where thousands of American soldiers are perishing in the name of anti-communism. It's a dangerous world for a young Jewish man with no money and no connections. "Mark my words," warns one of the Messners' neighbors. "The world is waiting, it's licking its chops, to take your boy away." That terror infects even Marcus, whose obsessive devotion to academics is fueled by the knowledge that, if he's expelled, he could likewise become bayonet fodder. Studying is nothing less than survival.

By design, "Indignation" is a slim and foreshortened volume, and critics are already assigning it to the shelf of "minor Roth," maybe because its narrative freight is small in relation to its themes. But its emotional effect is by no means small. Early on, Roth springs a stunning twist on the reader -- reminiscent of the switcheroo he pulled in "The Human Stain" -- and the entire book is transformed into a meditation on loss and entropy, culminating in a superb set piece that gives full play to Winesburg's pent-up demons.

Best of all, Roth has (for now, at least) abandoned the libido-in-winter theme that made some of his recent volumes a priapic chore. His ferocity, however, is undimmed as he takes up once more the conflict that has enlivened his work from the start: the unbridgeable divide between being a credit to one's race and "an enemy of the Jews." That last epithet was flung at both Roth and Roth's alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, whose own brother joined the attack in "Zuckerman Unbound": "To you everything is disposable! Everything is exposable! Jewish morality, Jewish endurance, Jewish wisdom, Jewish families -- everything is grist for your fun-machine."

Well, Roth's fun-machine has largely closed down, and on the evidence of both "Indignation" and "The Plot Against America," he has begun to savor both the mixed and unmixed blessings of his upbringing. He can even allow the self-banished Marcus to reflect back on "those unimperiled, unchanging days when everybody felt safe and settled in his place." It would be absurd to say Philip Roth has found religion; it would be equally absurd to say he's immune to Marcus' nostalgia for religion's comforts.

In the end, Roth leaves it to Marcus' mother to set him -- and us -- straight. "That old world is far, far away and everything in it is long gone. All that is left is the kosher meat. That's enough. That suffices. It has to."

By Louis Bayard

Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer. His books include "Mr. Timothy" and "The Black Tower."

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