The Short Unhappy Life of Marcus Messner
By SANFORD PINSKER
By Philip Roth
256 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $26.00
Indignation, usually defined as white-hot anger
directed at an injustice, not only describes Philip Roth’s latest novella but
also virtually everything he has written since Goodbye Columbus and Other
stories appeared in 1959. One of those stories, “Defender of the Faith,” so
upset certain Jewish war veterans that they implored the Anti-Defamation League
to shut the impudent Mr. Roth down. To its credit, the ADL refused. I would
like to think somebody in its corporate office actually read the story and
understood that it was a tale rectitude rather than a savaging portrait of an
unsavory Jewish soldier.
Sheldon Grossbart, the goldbricking Jewish recruit in Roth’s tale, is one
slimy, manipulative customer. Small wonder that various G.I. Jews were outraged
by his character. What they couldn’t see, however, is that Grossbart is a
catalyst rather than the story’s center. Sergeant Nathan Marx, a battle-tested
soldier, is the protagonist, and his
ambivalent Jewishness causes the wheels of “Defender of the Faith” to
spin. After a series of incidents making it clear that there is no string
Grossbart wouldn’t pull to avoid work, much less real danger, Marx
“swallows hard” and pulls some strings of his own which send a teary Grossbart
to the Pacific Theater.
Indignation brings Roth’s interest in war back to the front. The year is
1951, and a brand-new Newark protagonist, Marcus Messner, finds himself
expelled from college and soon after, sent to the war in Korea. Messner, unlike
Grossbart, is finished during his first battle. Indignation is the sum
total of his memories, just as the unnamed narrator in Everyman (2000)
eulogized his much-longer life from the graveside.
For Roth followers, Messner will have a familiar feel. He is proof—as if more
were needed—that you can take the boy out of Newark but that you can’t take
Newark out of the boy. Messner's father is the community’s kosher butcher and Roth,
always the consummate stylist, knows how to describe the intricacies of kosher
butchering just as he knew how to describe glove-making in American Pastoral
(1997) or the jewelry-store business in Everyman. Marcus is the dutiful
son who spends a good deal of his time helping his father in the butcher shop.
At this point the novella swoons with father-son love, but all this changes
suddenly as Marcus nears his high-school graduation and his father begins to
worry obsessively about the prospect of his son dying in the Korean War.
Marcus spends his freshman year at a local community college, but soon finds
that living sat home just won’t do. Enter Winesburg College in Ohio, a small,
bucolic liberal-arts college (1,200 students) that reeks of the 1950s: most of
its fraternities cannot, by national charter, accept Jews, blacks, or Asians;
and worse, at least so far as Marcus is concerned, attendance at chapel is
At this point let me insert a small disclaimer: I attended a small college much
like Roth’s fictional Winesburg (Philip Roth went to Bucknell), and even though
I followed Messner-Roth by some nine years I can testify that Roth’s
descriptions of fraternity life for the 10 percent of Jewish students admitted
to such WASP institutions are painfully accurate, as is his bristling about
required attendance at predominantly Christian chapel services. Things at such
sleepy colleges—Messner’s, Roth’s, and/or mine—did not change until the
mid-1960s. Small wonder that I turned the pages of this small book with sad
recognition, and even smaller wonder that this is not the best way to render
objective critical judgments.
Marcus was a crackerjack high-school debater, the sort of precocious kid who
memorizes whole paragraphs of Bertram Russell’s “Why I am Not a Christian” so
he can have them at the ready to score debate points. Unfortunately—and not
surprisingly—Marcus is a smartass of the first water, and when he tangles with
the dean of men (“lean and broad-shouldered, with a lantern jaw, sparkling blue
eyes, and a heavy crest of silver hair”), the outcome is predictable: Marcus is
so principled about not attending chapel that he ends up paying a fellow
student to take his place, gets caught, is expelled, and subsequently sent to
his death in Korea.
Roth scores high points for his renditions of the dean of men and Winesburg’s
president; both who could have been turned easily into straw men. I am not sure
the same thing can be said of Marcus, who ought to elicit our sympathy but who
doesn’t. Over some 40 years of teaching undergraduates I have met more than my
share of Marcus Messnerites. They usually appeared in my office to argue that
their term papers were much better than the below-C-level grades they received.
True, none of them cited Russell in their arguments, but they argued as
tediously and as sadly as does Messner.
A final word about Roth’s choice of Winesburg for the name of his fictional
college. He means, of course, to call our attention to Sherwood Anderson’s
classic tale, Winesburg, Ohio (1919), a collections of vignettes that
exposed the social disappointments and sexual frustrations of small town life.
Seen through the eyes of George Willard, a young newspaper cub, Roth slips a
reference to Willard into his novella (the name of a college dormitory) and he
makes sure there is enough sex—albeit, of the 1950s sort—to remind us that we
are, after all, reading Roth. But we are not shocked nor are we, for the most
Sherwood Anderson set a high bar for the coming-of-age novel. Indignation
does not meet, much less surpass, that bar; and I say this knowing full well
how “indignant” this will make Mr. Roth feel.