Since 1990, Philip Roth has published seven novels, two collections of essays and interviews, and one memoir. He’s 71 now, and while most writers of his generation are slowing, Roth’s ambition continues to expand. His latest, The Plot Against America, is a harrowing novel of political psychology, an imagined memoir in which Charles A. Lindbergh, the famous aviator and Nazi sympathizer, defeats Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. Lindbergh’s government appeals to its citizens’ fears and self-interests, Jews are scapegoated, von Ribbentrop dances at the White House, and the Roth family in Newark falls to pieces.
“Fear presides over these memories,” the book begins, “a perpetual fear.” The references to George W. Bush’s America are impossible to miss. The government reneges on critical alliances and reminds its citizens of the “grave internal danger that necessitated the curtailment of their constitutional rights.” Critics decry “giveaway tax breaks by Lindbergh’s Republican henchmen in the . . . pro-greed congress,” and later ask, “How long will Americans remain asleep while their cherished Constitution is torn to shreds by the fascist fifth column marching under the sign of the cross and the flag?” When the boyish, pious president wants to rally, he dresses up in a flight suit and hops into a plane. But this is no shrill satire like Our Gang, Roth’s 1971 shot at Nixon. His measure of history here is the way young Philip comes apart, an alternate childhood in which the boy’s sense of possibility and his sense of citizenship are radically and brutally amputated.
It may be the saddest book Roth has written and the most frightening. There’s always been a little Horatio Alger to him, a vein of optimistic patriotism. From Neil Klugman of “Goodbye, Columbus,” to Coleman Silk of The Human Stain, Roth’s heroes have been ghetto kids made good; his inquiries into self-creation and self-destruction have begun in the context of possibility. Even Alexander Portnoy, despite all that wanking, was a success, a commissioner in the Lindsay administration. In The Plot Against America, however, Philip grows up not in the land of opportunity but of terror. The novel reminds us of some of the current administration’s most embarrassing ideological ancestors (Henry Ford, Father Coughlin, Lindbergh, and others); it also makes one feel that the worst for this country is not only possible but near. When Roth does childhood in Newark, it’s immediate, he owns it, the singer one with the song. Here, though recast in a minor key, his performance is no less authoritative and graceful. As the news spreads about Lindbergh’s late-night nomination by the Republican Party, young Philip goes outdoors and sees the neighborhood around him transformed:
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. But what shocked a child most was the anger, the anger of men whom I knew as lighthearted kibbitzers or silent, dutiful breadwinners who all day long unclogged drainpipes or serviced furnaces or sold apples by the pound and then in the evening looked at the paper and listened to the radio and fell asleep in the living room chair, plain people who happened to be Jews now storming about the street with no concern for propriety. . . .
It’s possible to read this as self-centered, as if the novel’s question about American fascism is, What would it mean to Philip Roth and to Jews? But the book is empowered by its personal nature; its force lies in its emotional proximity, these super-real recollections of the child as he discovers himself to be persecuted. On the morning that I finished reading, I turned on the radio and heard about plans already in progress to cancel or delay the upcoming presidential election in the event of terrorist attack. My paranoia merged with the book’s, and I was terrified.
Some have described Roth’s recent, overtly political work over the last decade as a second career, as if Mr. Masturbation looked up from his nether parts in 1989 to discover the world around him, but the truth is that he has always dealt in cultural politics, and that egocentrism still lies at the soul of his brilliance. Those who find him offensive are free to skip his work, but those who think his offensiveness mars his greatness have it wrong: Roth’s power, beauty, and ugliness are all sourced together in his radical devotion to his own sensibility. Alexander Portnoy’s complaint (“If only I could cut down to one hand-job a day, or hold the line at two, or even three!”) is not so far from Nathan Zuckerman’s in The Human Stain: “What underlies the anarchy of the train of events, the uncertainties, the mishaps, the disunity, the shocking irregularities that define human affairs? Nobody knows.” Politics, culture, sex—what makes and unmakes a man? Roth’s answers are a shrug and a novel. All we have are stories, which lead to other stories, which fragment into bits.