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.
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.
One of the achievements of The Plot Against America is showing how fear slowly infects the very weather of one’s life, tightening each swallow of breath. The Family Roth and their neighbors ricochet from fearing the worst to telling themselves maybe-it-won’t-be-so-bad to realizing that their first dire instincts were right and maybe it’s time to prepare a getaway. “The fear was everywhere, the look was everywhere, in the eyes of our protectors especially, the look that comes in the split second after you have locked the door and realize you don’t have the key. We had never before observed the adults all helplessly thinking the same thoughts…devastated by the speed with which everything dreadful was happening.” Seeing their parents afraid makes the children doubly afraid. Phil, a stamp collector, wakes up howling after dreaming that the stamps for every national monument in his collection have been defiled with a swastika–from the Grand Canyon to the Great Smoky Mountains, nature itself has been Nazified.
American Jewry’s chief morale officer in those ominous days–the one crackling voice that keeps them from forming a refugee line from here to Canada–is gossip columnist and radio personality Walter Winchell, who leans into the microphone and guns his motor as if he had a fire to catch. “America’s best-known Jew after Albert Einstein,” Winchell isn’t cowed or conned by this cardboard messiah. He has Lindbergh’s anti-Semitic number and will perforate this phony full of whistling holes with the staccato put-downs that are his Western Union trademark. Thinks the young Phil, “Walter Winchell had only to disclose Lindbergh’s ‘pro-Nazi philosophy’ to his thirty million Sunday-evening listeners and to call Lindbergh’s presidential candidacy the greatest threat ever to American democracy for all the Jewish families on blocklong little Summit Avenue to resemble once again Americans enjoying the vitality and high spirits of a secure, free, protected citizenry instead of casting themselves about outdoors in their nightclothes like inmates escaped from a lunatic asylum.”
Not every Jew bugs out at the prospect of President Lindbergh. The influential Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf of B’nai Moshe, the first of Newark’s Conservative temples, greets Lindbergh’s candidacy with petaled words of assurance to his followers. Fear him not, Bengelsdorf says. Put away your parochial concerns, and don’t be such a peasant. Lindbergh only wants what’s best for America, and what’s best for America is what’s best for the Jews. “I want Charles Lindbergh to be my president not in spite of my being a Jew but because I am a Jew–an American Jew.” Smoothly buttered with social grace, Rabbi Bengelsdorf is Roth’s deadeye portrayal of a proto-neoconservative, an early-model Ravelstein who purrs at the mention of his cozy political connections and perfumes the air with his all-around erudition (“My uncle Monty liked to say of him, ‘The pompous son of a bitch knows everything–too bad he doesn’t know anything else'”). This pillar of wisdom testifies to Lindbergh’s noble intentions at a Madison Square Garden rally as the Roth family take turns tearing out their hair. What the hell does he think he’s doing? cries Roth’s father. “‘Koshering Lindbergh,’ Alvin said. ‘Koshering Lindbergh for the goyim.'” Giving them permission to vote for an anti-Semite.
It is the vulgar, untutored, hot-pastrami Winchell and shrewd cousin Alvin who have the better bead on the unfolding disaster than the courtly Jews conning themselves that it can’t happen here. Rabbi Bengelsdorf is only the most conspicuous prow ornament of a Jewish upper crust so prim, snobbish and complacent that it disdains any rumblings from below as bad manners, poor form. Raised voices offend their notions of civic decorum. After Winchell is axed by his radio sponsor, Jergens Lotion, for lacing into President Lindbergh, the New York Times–“a paper founded and owned by Jews,” whose editorial policy opposes Lindbergh’s appeasement of Hitler–commends this act of corporate and journalistic hygiene. Free speech entails responsibility, and this rabble-rouser went too far. “With accusations so far-fetched that even a lifelong Democrat may find himself feeling unexpected sympathy for the president, Winchell has disgraced himself irredeemably. Jergens Lotion is to be commended for the speed with which it has removed him from the airwaves.” (How accurately Roth renders the editorial drone of the Times, its Olympian snore.)
To reassure themselves that they still live in the America of their civics books, the Roths take a sightseeing trip to Washington to pay homage to the Founding Fathers. “One reason my parents decided to keep to our long-laid plans to visit Washington was to convince Sandy and me–whether or not they themselves believed it–that nothing had changed other than that FDR was no longer in office.” They stand in awe at the Lincoln Memorial, an epiphany moment, “the raised statue of Lincoln in his capacious throne of thrones, the sculpted face looking to me like the most hallowed possible amalgamation–the face of God and the face of America all in one…. What ordinarily passed for great just paled away…”
The afterglow is soon wiped off their faces as Roth’s father is labeled–like Winchell–a “loudmouth Jew” for sounding off against President Lindbergh and learns, as does the entire brood, that Lincoln’s breadth of spirit no longer blesses the land, which is turning to quicksand beneath them. Institutions that seemed so solid and permanent–the Congress, the Supreme Court, a free press–depend on the willingness of men and women to honor the Constitution and the laws of the land. Once those ideals are no longer honored, once checks and balances are swept off the table with a swing of the arm, nothing stands between citizens and the state. The Kafka machinery in motion, American Jews have their liberties amputated bit by bit, forcibly assimilated by the Office of American Absorption as children are wrested from their parents and dispersed into the heartland, where they can learn how to milk elk. One unfortunate packed off to the boonies is Phil’s schoolmate Seldon, the novel’s designated schnook upon whom every misfortune befalls. Seldon’s father is terminally ill, his death rattle reverberating through the house: “[He] coughed so frequently and with so much force that there seemed to be not one father but four, five, six fathers in there coughing themselves to death.” After his father dies and Seldon is shipped off to Kentucky, his mother meets her own tragic end while the unsuspecting kid yammers over the phone about Fig Newtons and chess and having no friends to invite to his birthday party. Nudged across the page with tender exasperation, Seldon is everything a typical Roth character isn’t–guileless, slow on the uptake, trusting; a kick-me patsy who is memorialized in the final paragraph as the orphan victim “shattered by the malicious indignities of Lindbergh’s America.”
It’s the phrase “malicious indignities” that arrows to the heart of our heartless time, flash-forwards to the string of shabby degradations that affront us daily, when Vietnam War veteran Max Cleland can be mocked for the loss of his limbs, Christopher Reeve disparaged in death for championing stem-cell research, hostage Kenneth Bigley criticized by conservatives for the “ignoble and unmanly” pleas that his life be spared, 9/11 widows maligned as publicity junkies, George Soros slandered by the editorial-page editor of the Washington Times as “a Jew who figured out a way to survive the Holocaust” and Michelle Malkin given generous airtime to defend the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and propose new camps for suspicious Muslims–it just never stops. Apart from a funny-rueful exchange that finds Phil wondering aloud, What about the Democrats, can’t they do something?, to which his father replies, “Son, don’t ask me about the Democrats. I’m angry enough as it is,” Roth doesn’t make overexplicit the parallels between America’s fall to fascism under Lindbergh and Bush’s fear-based presidency. He doesn’t need to. The parallels are so richly implicit, they vibrate like harp strings, dissolving the distance between then and now, fact and fiction.
Some reject the parallels. Bill Kauffman in The American Conservative condemns Roth for dragging Lindbergh and the case for isolationism through the muck, calling The Plot Against America “the sort of novel a bootlicking author might write to curry favor with a totalitarian government.” Benjamin Anastas in Bookforum more temperately chastises Roth for not recognizing the real plot against America, “one with targets and objectives we know all too well,” hatched by terrorists abroad, not fascists within. And Stanley Crouch diagnoses Roth on Salon as afflicted with historical Alzheimer’s for deliberately ignoring the racism against black Americans during the 1940s. “How could this book pass everyone at Roth’s publisher without the unmentioned smell of burning flesh filling room after room until someone raised a question about the stench for which the novel had cut off its nose in order to avoid acknowledging?” Philip Roth, he gives, and gives, and gives, writing himself to the bone, and this is the thanks he gets–aggravation! He doesn’t even get nominated for a National Book Award! But the ravenous sales of The Plot Against America (rare for a work of literary fiction) may signal that an inflection point in the political mood has been reached, a desire to face the fear of the past four years without flinching. “Fear is an instructor of great sagacity and the herald of all revolutions,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. “One thing he teaches, that there is rottenness where he appears. He is a carrion crow, and though you see not well what he hovers for, there is death somewhere. That obscene bird is not there for nothing. He indicates great wrongs which must be revised.” And malicious indignities which must be redressed.