I’d been a big fan of Philip Roth since stumbling across Portnoy’s Complaint
in college. That book spoke hysterically of the torments of a desire conflicting with one’s upbringing and one’s own better sense. Roth captured so keenly the nature of an almost self-destructive pursuit and the complexities of repression, transference, and what Dostoevsky’s Underground Man referred to as “contrary to one’s own interests…that very ‘most advantageous advantage.’” The book was hilarious absurdity yet heartbreaking at the same time, Roth spinning on a dime from table pounding laughter to gut clenched sorrow.
His writing, often humorous, has never quite reached that pinnacle, though not without strenuous effort on Roth’s part in Sabbath’s Theater
to repeat that initial bawdy success. His later novels have been predominantly focussed on America’s past and have been suffused throughout with an all-pervading sorrow. Even his previous novel, The Human Stain
, which is rare in late Roth for taking place predominantly in current times, casts back heavily into the forties and fifties and carries in its pages a terrible melancholy.
Roth sets up the story in The Plot Against America
matter of factly, thoroughly, softly, the gauze of memory parting and his old Newark neighborhood of Weequahic center stage. We are treated to a quaint memory of place, and Roth spares no effort nor space in laying out the butcher’s, the baker’s, the school, the apartment houses, and the greater boundaries of Newark. He introduces us to a Roth family mirroring his own older brother and parents, making a point of drawing a completely historically accurate portrait of the year 1940. From there the story moves into fantasy, but a fantasy grounded in the painstakingly drawn reality we’ve already seen.
The book opens “Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear. Of course, no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn’t been president or if I hadn’t been the offspring of Jews.” The greater world of the book is one in which Roosevelt is defeated in his third run for the Presidency by the Lone Eagle, Charles A. Lindbergh, who wins on his promise to keep America out of the developing European war instigated by Hitler. Most Americans pass through high school and even college only knowing Lindbergh was the first man to solo pilot a plane across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis, never hearing of his later association with the isolationist America First organization, his friendliness with Hermann Gorring, and his virulent anti-Semitism.
Roth cleverly comes up with twists that both fit their time while being allegorical to our own. When it became clear that an accomplished Democrat would win the election, the Republicans chose Lindbergh, betting on celebrity name recognition over competence. Lindbergh flies the Spirit of St. Louis, barnstorming from one campaign stop to another, while Roosevelt dawdles along in the old train campaign mode. When news of German bombs falling on London and hitting St. Paul’s elicits American sympathy, Lindbergh upstages the news with what’s first reported as an explosion and crash, later updated to “engine trouble” forcing him to land in the Alleghenies. How simply the media allow themselves to be manipulated by politicians has never been a new concept, and Lindbergh plays his hero status to the hilt.
Once Lindbergh is President, he signs treaties with Germany and Japan, allowing the two of them to rain unfettered destruction on the rest of Europe and Asia. Eventually the President creates the Office of American Absorption (OAA), an organization that drafts young Jewish boys to go and work for eight weeks on farms. This is the first, almost innocuous step, one readers with the luxury of hindsight can’t help but view ominously, but one over which the Jewish community debates the advantages and disadvantages. Philip’s brother Sandy, an artist eager to draw farm animals from the flesh, comes back from his eight weeks labor dismissive of Jewish culture, having eaten ham, bacon, pork chops. His enthusiasm for the program propels him into becoming the statewide recruiting spokesman for the program. He is joined by an accomodationist rabbi who becomes Lindbergh’s spokesman for the OAA, “koshering Lindbergh for the gentiles,” in the words of one character.
The next ominous step is a letter Mr. Roth receives detailing the Homestead 42 Act presenting “opportunities” for Jewish families to move to other places in the country “at government expense.” This is done with their employers “transferring” them to new offices of their company. The way Roth’s novel works seems exactly right to me. Instead of nighttime seizures, there is government “incentives” prompted by business “transfers.” Nothing blatantly illegal, nothing overt. That’s not how things are done in America. We are the backroom deal country, where things happen in secret, in committee. Once these Jewish addresses are vacated, in a small unremarked portion of the Homestead 42 Act, assistance is provided to move the goyim into the neighborhoods, breaking up not only Jewish solidarity as a social construct but also electoral power.
At some level, Roth has gotten revenge on certain politicians from his past, working as Dante did, condemning these people to the hell of having been Lindbergh supporters, including the former mayor Newark, the Representative from the area, and one of the state senators. He likewise presents a pantheon fit for his saints: FDR, New York’s mayor LaGuardia, and all of Roosevelt’s cabinet and Supreme Court appointments.
Walter Winchell is the loudest voice against Lindbergh, fired for claiming Homestead 42 is just the first step in a fascist pogrom to round up the Jews, which propels him into a run for president. And though he is castigated by the remaining press as a self-serving publicity hound, Roth gives him a speech that lends the book its title and he is presented as Cassandra, the only person of note in the book who early recognizes what is occurring. He is the media we sometimes wish we had, fearlessly speaking the truth even if it loses him his job. Winchell’s candidacy isn’t so much with any actual hope of winning the election, but is a provocation to anti-Semites all across the country. At one point he goes so far as to speak in Detroit, home of famed anti-Semite and ultra-conservative priest Father Coughlin. This leads to riots in Detroit and re-enactments of Kristallnacht with Jews on the street being attacked, bombs thrown into predominantly Jewish schools and cultural organizations and temples. Three thousand Jews flee Detroit to Windsor, Ontario. The rioting spreads to Chicago and Cleveland and other cities across the midwest. Winchell’s campaign ends in his being the first presidential candidate assassinated while he's in Kentucky.
The Lindbergh presidency reaches its culmination in the public funeral for Winchell and subsequent spreading of the riots, a presidential crisis, various plots and counterplots in Washington, and Roosevelt regaining the Presidency in a special election concurrent with the 1942 Congressional elections. The collapse of everything happens a bit too quickly, Lindbergh disappearing as quickly as he arrived, a shadow passing across the sun.
I’d not usually provide so much plot summary, but The Plot Against America
is a story-rich tale that necessitates some summary. What’s even more remarkable, considering how much story is going on in the book, is how tightly packed with brilliance it is. Roth excels in an artistry of efficiency. Every side path of the story, every wrinkle, is crafted to the novel’s greater end and message. One of the things I noted while listening to T.C. Boyle was how unnecessary so much of the story seemed, how much pointless window dressing frittered away focus, energy, and time. No matter what one may think about Roth’s legendary fixation on sex or his old fashioned chauvinism, it is impossible not to admire the obvious finely tooled masterwork of his novels.