Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Plot Against America -- by Philip Roth

Charles Lindbergh, an “America First” guy who blames the British and the Jews, although probably not in that order, for the war fever sweeping the United States in 1940, runs against FDR and wins. Hitler and Lindbergh sign a non-aggression pact. The government takes anti-Semitic actions. Private anti-Semitic acts, including some murders, are tolerated.

All seen through the eyes of the 8-year old Phillip Roth, son of a salesman for Met Life. The father is a man whose sense of right and wrong has cost him plenty by the time the book opens, and will cost him a lot more by the time the book ends. The mother sounds more practical on the surface, but it is clear that she is just as idealistic. Older brother is a fine artist, easily obsessive. Philip is a mischief-maker, in ways both comic and tragic. The older Phillip Roth, the narrator, is sort of forgiving of his younger self, is trying to cope with a stressful situation. Aunt Evelyn, conveniently for the purposes of the book, works for a man who is acting as Lindbergh’s “rabbi.” There is a ne’er-do-well nephew living with them too, just draft age, if there was a draft, if there was a war. There is a Jewish family downstairs with a sick father, and a nerdy son who idolizes Philip. Philip, and everyone else in this Jewish part of Newark, idolizes Walter Winchell. The Plot Against America will change them all.

The book was very stressful to read, and impossible to put down. It starts fast, keeps accelerating, and just when you think you are not going to be able to take it any more, Roth flashes forward, so you know where land is, and then fills backwards. It was needed. It reminds you that any terror you read about is nothing like the terror certain people have to live through. Roth lets you off the hook a lot with his glimpses into the future. You realize that the people living through the situation are not so lucky.

Most of the focus of the book is on family matters. What else could a book about an 8-year old be about? Although the narrator is actually an older Phillip Roth, he is generally very careful to avoid saying what impact the events of 1940 had on the man who survived it all, and is writing, probably in 2004. I only recall one incident in the whole book where Roth broke his time line to describe the future of a character after the war was over. Keeping the events circumscribed helps to counterbalance the flash forwards, and keeps the suspense up. Maybe everyone learns their lesson. Maybe no one does.

Roth does provide an appendix of facts on which the story was based. These facts cover the complete biographies of certain of the central characters, like FDR and Lindbergh, so the biographies break the time line. However, by the time you get to the time line, the only things you are focused on are the events that took place right before Pearl Hatrbor.

The book is a real valentine to his parents. I have never read Portnoy’s Complaint, but this mother was an amazing, loving woman. I have spoken about the father of course. Given the stress all the characters are under, everyone behaves quite heroically.

I have never read It Can’t Happen Here, but there are, apparently, several veiled, and one or two very obvious references to the old book. This leads us to the question that everyone seems to be asking? Is this book about something that really took place in 1940, or is it an allegory about George Bush, and is everyone just one step from being a Nazi?

I think the book is about the effects of anti-Semitism on this family, already wracked by financial woes. It says that there are decent people everywhere, and not-so-decent people in your family, and one of the not-so-decent people may be you. In this book, Jews are plenty virtuous, as are non-Jews. But the book also contains a great many Jews who made their fortune in less than ideal ways.

The book reminds you that you do not need too many not-so-decent people to cause an extreme amount of mischief, so everyone else has to be super careful to make sure that mischief makers are nipped in the bud early. Many big actions in the book have no consequence at all, and some seemingly benign actions are tragic. Of course, several pre-meditated evil actions have predictably evil consequences as well.

In this book a great many people show courage, and take great risks, simply because they believe it is the right thing to do. These people are of all religions.

I would recommend this book, even though you get the sense that Roth did not get his big literary reputation writing a gentle family reminiscence in the middle of a dystopia novel. On the other hand, I don’t know who else could have pulled this off.