The Short Unhappy Life of Marcus Messner


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 required.

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 part, amused.

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.