The Great American Anti-Semitic Novel


The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth
400 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $26.

For a different take on Roth’s new novel, click here.

Two decades ago, Philip Roth wrote a book called The Great American Novel, an extremely silly baseball fantasia that was, like much of his work, a brilliant but partial offering. With his new novel, The Plot Against America, Roth has, at long last, written a book that lives up to his epic talents. It will be received as the great American novel of this season and may well come to be regarded as one of the greatest ever.

I do not offer this assessment lightly. In fact, much of Roth’s recent work has disappointed me. It is indisputably brilliant, but emotionally pale. Fairly or not, I’ve been waiting for him to return to the raw, compulsive pleasures of Portnoy’s Complaint.

The Plot is something of a throwback, actually. The book it calls to mind, though, is Goodbye, Columbus, Roth’s dazzling 1959 debut. Once again, he has returned to his old stomping grounds of Newark, New Jersey, to explore the question that has largely defined his career: what it means to be Jewish in American life.

The year is 1940 and seven-year-old Philip Roth, a precocious stamp collector, watches in horror as Charles Lindbergh, the heroic aviator, is nominated as an “anti-war” candidate by the Republicans. He goes on to defeat the incumbent Franklin Roosevelt in a landslide. Lindbergh signs a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany and initiates a series of policies that reflect his own insidious—and historically documented—anti-Semitism. Almost immediately, Philip’s family is torn asunder by questions of familial and religious loyalty, and not long after there is rioting in the streets.

One of the triumphs of the novel is that none of this seems at all far-fetched. Indeed, as told by Roth, it comes across as something closer to inevitable: the outgrowth of a latent bigotry and fear-mongering that has always driven American politics. (One need only look back to the Civil War, or ahead to the eras of McCarthyism and Watergate, for supporting evidence.)

Any work of historical fiction succeeds, of course, because it reflects the enduring crises of humanity. And one of the eeriest aspects of this novel is the manner in which it captures the rancor of our own current political culture. Here, for instance, is Roth writing about a visit to his local theater to watch a newsreel with his father:

FDR’s speech I’ve not forgotten because when he proclaimed… "The only thing we have to fear is the obsequious yielding to his Nazi friends by Charles A. Lindbergh," a good half of the movie audience booed and hissed while the rest, including my father, clapped as loudly as they could, and I wondered if a war might not break out right there on Broad Street in the middle of the day and if, when we left the darkened theater, we’d find downtown Newark a rubble heap of smoking ruins and fires burning everywhere.

The emotional center of the book, though, is how these larger political dramas play out within the Roth family. Philip watches his rebellious cousin sneak off to Canada to fight the Nazis, only to return an embittered cripple. His older brother, Sandy, takes part in an exchange program that sends him to Kentucky for the summer and becomes a poster boy for Lindbergh’s policy of “Jewish absorption.” And his histrionic aunt, Evelyn, marries an opportunistic rabbi who becomes the president’s primary Jewish collaborator.

And yet, none of these characters are portrayed as villains. They are, at worst, confused souls, responding to the enduring question of what it means, and costs, to retain a Jewish identity in the face of persecution.

What Roth captures so vividly is just how terrifying childhood can be, the extreme feeling states of a boy who must watch, helplessly, as his proud father is humiliated publicly, and his mother is driven to the edge of madness.

In the past, Roth’s style—those long, elegant, detail-choked paragraphs—has sought to convey ideas, the complex ruminations of his consciousness. But here, he has put his virtuosity in the service of his heart. In returning to his native turf, a natural love for the place has emerged, along with an energy that will call to mind the ecstatic descriptions of Augie March.

As an adult, he is able to document the nation’s steady descent into its own worst impulses. These are particularly chilling today, and we can expect an endless squall of partisan commentary on the novel—it is Jewish paranoia, it is prescient, and so forth.

But the novel will rank as a masterpiece because it records, with such unflinching fidelity, the emotions of a single little boy caught in the tumultuous cross currents of history. His family is coming apart all around him, exploding from within, and there’s nowhere he can hide. This is the first and final bruising truth of The Plot Against America: the price of identity resides in the loss of those we love.

Discussion Question

What’s your favorite Philip Roth novel? >>