Who knew that Philip Roth, best known for his obsession with sex in novels like Portnoy’s Complaint and The Breast, also wrote an alternate history–and a very good one at that? The point at which Roth’s novel deviates from real-world history is 1940. Germany is at war with the rest of Europe, but America retains its isolationist stance. FDR clearly wants to join the fight and institutes measures which technically void our status as neutrals, but forces at home like the organizations America First and the German-American Bund oppose any involvement.
The deviation occurs when Charles A. Lindbergh, dashing hero pilot, isolationist and anti-Semite marches into the Republican National Convention and captures the nomination for president. Running on a platform of “Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War,” Lindbergh sweeps FDR from the White House.
After taking office Lindbergh reaches an “understanding” with Hitler and the Japanese and, true to his word, keeps us out of the war. But President Lindbergh has a domestic agenda as well. He wants to “integrate” American Jews into broader American society by sending their boys to work on farms and having businesses (under pressure) relocate employees from Jewish enclaves out to the hinterlands. How far will this policy go? You’ll have to read the book, but I will say that things eventually get pretty ugly.
Now this is an interesting story in itself. A good what-if yarn. But the way in which Roth chooses to tell it is fascinating. He uses his own family, with himself as a nine-year-old boy narrating, as the focal characters. We don’t follow Charles Lindbergh around; we just see him in the newsreels. Instead we follow little Philip Roth around, as grown-up Roth imagines an alternate history for himself and his kin.
First, let me say that Roth is brilliant at showing the naive and sometimes strange perceptions and fears of a little boy. At one point little Philip contemplates running away to Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Town, a thousand miles away. This is some of the best treatment of the world through a child’s eyes I’ve seen since To Kill a Mockingbird.
But the real interest is not just little Philip but his family, including uncles, an aunt and a cousin–and beyond them the wider Jewish community of Newark, New Jersey. How do they respond to the threat of a quasi-fascist president? Do they collaborate, rebel, stand their ground, go down in flames or what? What interests Roth is not so much the affairs of the mighty but the question of what will Roth’s father, an insurance salesman with an eighth-grade education, do when ordered to move to Kentucky and leave behind everything he knows and loves? Roth the author is in the singularly fortunate position of being able to portray his father as a hero.
But not everyone in the Roths’s community is a hero. There is a local rabbi who acts as a Judas goat for Lindbergh, helping give the aviator credibility as a non-anti-Semite. And there is Philip’s cousin, who refuses to wait for America to enter the war and goes off to Canada to join up. His is not a happy trajectory.
One fascinating character is the gossip-columnist-turned-commentator Walter Winchell. Winchell is basically a loudmouth with a lot of listeners, like somebody on Fox News, but he is Jewish and he publicly and vehemently denounces Lindbergh. We only see him from afar, but what happens to him is at the heart of the story.
Are there any themes here? Well, clearly the main one is: How the pressure of external events reveals character. Clearly some people in the story have a higher moral standing than others. The larger political story throws that into high relief.
Another major theme is the role of violence in social life, how some people struggle to live without violence and how in others violence burns just beneath the surface.
Still another theme is the greatness of the American system. The Jews in Roth’s environment are not Old Country sorts of people: They affirmatively define themselves as Americans. They believe in America. Can the American system right itself after almost capsizing? Well, you’ll have to read the book to see just whether that happens. I did find the ending a little bit unsatisfying, but it was in line with Roth’s themes.
I respect this novel, because, without descending into a naturalistic obsession with “humble” folk, it deals with “ordinary” people under stress and shows their true mettle. For me this is part of “Descending Mount Olympus” wherein I find my way to literature that doesn’t deal with the world’s greatest architect, but with people (some of) whom have an interesting kind of greatness anyway.
So that’s two novels now by an author I thought I would never like. I wrote about the other one here: “Happy Birthday, Coleman Silk”. Now I’ve got a third one on order. Will this be as far as I can go with Philip Roth? Time will tell.
If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life