The Counter-Life | The Nation


The Counter-Life

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Philip Roth is a miracle of modern medicine. Physically, he's been falling apart since the 1960s, when he collapsed at the publication party for William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner and was sped into surgery for appendicitis, only to have doctors discover his stomach drowning in pus. "They stick tubes into him from top to bottom and for days he wallows in delirium," Albert Goldman recorded in his 1969 Life profile of Roth. "As he learned later, by the time they cut into him he was just two hours' walk from the grave--a shocking realization that flooded him with an awed feeling of pride and elation. He had wrestled the Malekhamoves--the angel of death--to a fall." But Malekhamoves kept coming back for more, and in the 1980s and '90s Roth took punches to the system--a nervous breakdown, an addiction to painkillers following a failed knee operation, bouts of depression, acute back pain, quintuple bypass surgery--that would have sent most men to the scrapheap. But Roth has proven as indestructible as Keith Richards, and less woozy. His writing betrays no signs of dotage, fatigue or midnight staggers; his brain still hums like a power plant; his raptor gaze remains as keen as ever. Roth's productivity over the past ten years has been phenomenal and shaming. Novel after novel fired like a series of torpedoes--Sabbath's Theater, American Pastoral (which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1997), I Married a Communist, The Human Stain, The Dying Animal and, now, The Plot Against America.

About the Author

James Wolcott
James Wolcott is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants:...

How has he been able to keep up this industrial output? By ruthlessly paring everything superfluous from his life, maintaining a pristine regimen in his own private Yaddo. For a New Yorker profile published in 2000, David Remnick made a pilgrimage to Roth's hideaway in rural Connecticut, a two-story clapboard house where the elusive prey lives alone, sets his own schedule and writes in a monkish cell of a studio without even a parakeet to distract him. The Cone of Silence descends and the hourless workday begins. "He stays out here all day and into the evening; no telephone, no fax. Nothing gets in." And yet, as I'm sure Remnick would agree, somehow everything does. Opting out, Roth has never been more plugged in. Unlike other writers who have thrown in their lot with the squirrels and berries, Roth hasn't gone spiritual-naturalist or solipsistic up there in Sleepy Hollow. Chosen isolation has paradoxically softened the armored egotism of much of his earlier work, fully liberating a social panoramist with Proustian recall. It's as if Roth U-Hauled the twentieth century with him up to the monastery, trying to make sense of it in light of contemporary madness.

Set in the 1940s, The Plot Against America is nevertheless pure now, the sword-flash ferocity of Sabbath's Theater, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain subsiding into deep foreboding, the taunting jack-o'-lantern grin of George W. Bush haunting the back of the mind as one consumes the pages. A cautionary tale about how easily the country could slide into fascism, slipping into it until the black waters bury our heads, the novel doesn't seem so much intricately plotted (though it is--at the end, too much so) as anxiously daydreamed into being. "Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear," strikes the opening chord of Roth's fictional childhood memoir, and in exhuming those memories The Plot Against America opens its own branch of The Twilight Zone, where everything seems familiar and humdrum on the surface, yet disquietingly off; the everyday normal has begun to warp. Even members of your own family cast a Gothic shadow.

1940. Like characters in a Neil Simon nostalgia play, Roth's autobiographical troupe--father, mother, older brother Sandy, cousin Alvin and young Phil--seem posed front and center against a slide-show backdrop of Americana. Fourth of July fireworks. Thanksgiving turkey. March of Dimes drives. The Pledge of Allegiance recited like a prayer. The Roths and their fellow Jews in Weequahic, New Jersey, feel safe and at home in their adopted land, their lives woven into the fabric of the flag, with the expectation of better days ahead after the long climb out of the Great Depression. "Then the Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed." Charles Lindbergh, whose solo flight in the Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic to Paris in 1927 thrilled the world, becomes the surprise choice of the Republican Party to oppose the re-election of FDR. It isn't just his impressive lack of political experience--always an asset in this country--that makes him such an imposing challenger. For Lindbergh is more than a storybook hero, an American eagle in aviator goggles; he's a tragic hero, sanctified through suffering--invisibly scarred. The kidnapping-murder of the Lindbergh child imbued the father "with a pathos that transformed him into a martyred titan comparable to Lincoln." Fleeing a madhouse America, the grieving family decamps to England, where Lindbergh hops over to Nazi Germany to sample the hospitality of Air Marshal Göring, who honors him with a gold cross adorned with four swastikas. Such hobnobbing understandably unnerves most American Jews, and Lindbergh's testimonial to Hitler as "a great man" doesn't help.

But to most folks "Lucky Lindy" is a savior from above, piloting solo to and from campaign stops like Superman on his appointed rounds. (The descriptions of Lindbergh's sky-visitations recall Hitler's descent into Berlin in the visual overture to Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will.) Unlike most office-seekers, Lindbergh doesn't gasbag and gladhand. He's a laconic plank of Rugged Individualism, a Gary Cooperish man of few words upon whom hopes and subtle graces are projected. Surely no one who so looks the role of hero could do harm. He presents himself as a father-protector, a knightly shield between us and Them. A staunch isolationist, Lindbergh promises to forge an understanding with Nazi Germany to prevent the United States from being sucked into another ghastly war in Europe, sparing America untold carnage. The price of neutrality is giving Nazi Germany a green light to gobble whatever it can of the free world and unleash the mother of all pogroms.

Practically a separate character in The Plot Against America, an honorary member of the household, is the radio that anchors the living room. A master mimic, Roth has been entranced by the radio since baby teeth. In Albert Goldman's profile of him, "radio" is the open-sesame word that unlocks his impressionist id, which gets him riffing the voices from The Jack Benny Show--"smoothie Jack, fruity Dennis"--and goofing about a Jewish version of Jean Genet's The Balcony called The Terrace, about a brothel catering to nice Jewish boys that sprinkles their tushies before dressing them for dreamland in their Dr. Dentons. "Tucked into your bed, you fall asleep blissfully listening to a little radio with an orange dial. 'Wake up, dear, it's time to get up.' For that, Philip says, he'd gladly pay $50 a night." In The Plot Against America, the radio doesn't doodle away the cares of the day with the light jousting of Jack Benny and Fred Allen. It delivers a nightly diet of bad news for Jews. Families gather around the set to listen to the latest bulletins and take turns tearing out their hair. Lindbergh's acceptance speech at the Republican convention drives the Roths out of the house and into the night to vent with the neighbors.

Entire families known to me previously only fully dressed in daytime clothing were wearing pajamas and nightdresses under their bathrobes and milling around in their slippers at dawn as if driven from their homes by an earthquake. But what shocked a child most was the anger, the anger of men whom I knew as lighthearted kibbitzers or silent, dutiful breadwinners who all day long unclogged drainpipes or serviced furnaces or sold apples by the pound and then in the evening looked at the paper and listened to the radio and fell asleep in the living room chair, plain people who happened to be Jews now storming about the street and cursing with no concern for propriety, abruptly thrust back into the miserable struggle from which they had believed their families extricated by the providential migration of the generation before.

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