The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth
Review by Stephanie Gold
Philip Roth commences his newest novel with characteristic power, introducing perspective, theme, and tone in two concisely compelling sentences. In faux-autobiographical voice, Roth starts The Plot Against America thusly:
“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.”
In 42 words, Roth sets the stage: a Jewish child’s world, an aura of fear, and the premise of what might have happened had Charles Lindbergh been elected president in 1940 instead of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Spanning just over two years, from June 1940 to October 1942, Roth’s novel is seen through the eyes of an adult remembering his boyhood world. Most of the perspective is that of a seven-year-old—which makes for a more innocent, less prurient narrative than Roth fans (and foes) might anticipate after the likes of Portnoy’s Complaint, Good-Bye Columbus, and Sabbath’s Theater. The novel is not without flaws. The ending is uncomfortably abrupt, and though the narrative’s tone is predominantly quite effective, there are occasional lapses where the switch in perspective—from seven-year-old innocence to adult wisdom—comes across awkwardly. In general, however, Roth walks that fine line deftly, and the child’s perspective serves as a brilliant vehicle for the story.
The boy in question is Philip Roth, and the novel is a highly autobiographical fiction. Set in his familiar Weequahic section of Newark, NJ, Plot Against America is awash in lovingly remembered details of Roth’s actual family—his insurance agent father Herman, efficient housewife mother Bess, and artist prodigy older brother Sandy—plus his home, “the second-floor flat in the small two-and-a-half-family house on a tree-lined street of frame wooden houses with red-brick stoops” where he grew up. Roth’s novel is grounded in the reality of the people and streets he knew as a child; what he plays with is history.
The people, many of them, are real. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, Fiorello La Guardia, and Walter Winchell, were in real life very much a part of the political scene in 1940, and Roth’s other characters, the rabbis and family members, peopled his early history as well. Rabbi Joachim Prinz was a highly respected Newark rabbi, and Charles Lindbergh was a beloved, heroic aviator, a tabloid favorite whose baby had been kidnapped, and he was also a notoriously anti-Semitic Nazi-sympathist. But Lindbergh wasn’t chosen by the Republican Party to run against Roosevelt, and he wasn’t elected president.
The Plot Against America skews history, but so deftly that the unthinkable becomes imaginable. Set against a backdrop of the familiar, the terrifying progression of anti-Semitic repression and violence launched by the election of Lindbergh is chilling, not because it’s so improbable, but because Roth makes it so convincingly believable. Especially if you are the offspring of Jews.
In early 1940, Philip is a cheerful, stamp-collecting third grader, his brother is a seventh grader with a talent for drawing, his parents are hard-working, outgoing, members of a tight knit Jewish community, and Roosevelt is president, as he has been for all of young Philip’s life thus far. By January of 1941, Lindbergh is in the White House, America is adamantly abstaining from World War II, and the future looks dubious if you’re a Jew.
To reassure the children, Roth’s parents proceed with the planned family trip to Washington D.C., where, away from Weequahic’s insular community, they experience first-hand how the country has changed. As Roth’s father tells friends after they return,” You had to be there to see what it looked like. They live in a dream, and we live in a nightmare.” Anti-Semitism is sanctioned and rampant, and the Jew’s place has mutated overnight from assimilated American to targeted “other.”
Pogroms in Wisconsin? Not so far-fetched in Roth’s imagined world. Roth paints an America in which your most paranoid relative, the one who saw Nazis behind every tree, was right after all, but it takes some time before the new order is evident. As Lindbergh’s government unveils programs such as Just Folks, shipping urban Jewish boys out to summer apprenticeships on mid-western farms, people respond with varying degrees of cynicism, optimism, panic, denial, and naiveté. Some see invidious attempts to tear Jewish families apart and foment community dissent. Others sneer at those fears as pathetic expressions of Jewish ghetto mentality. Some want to run to Canada before things get worse, some want to stick it out (how much worse can things get?), while others believe their best bet lies in collaborating with the new regime.
The novel is rich in allusions. A comfortably assimilated minority suddenly becomes alien and vulnerable, formerly cohesive families and communities find themselves torn by conflicting responses to predicaments and fears, and it doesn’t take an enormous leap of imagination to see in Weequahic’s plight the dilemma of the German Jews under Hitler. Neither are large leaps required to see parallels with current Liberal fears regarding Homeland Security incursions into American civil rights.
Although the political allusions, past and present, add a chill and power to Roth’s fiction, the passages of the novel that detail at length the political changes wrought by Lindbergh’s ascension are the least riveting. Roth’s wide-angle lens, though accurate and pertinent, is less compelling than his zoom. The strongest, most moving scenes are those with the narrowest, most intimate focus. As Winchell devolves into a caricature and martyr, Philip’s father and mother develop into the most human and plausible of heroes, each in his and her own way, each in keeping with their earlier personas and with the societal norms of the time. Bess Roth’s phone conversations with Seldon, a scared and somewhat irritating eight-year-old, are deftly written and exceptionally moving. Similarly, Herman Roth overcomes his flaws and fears and steps up convincingly as father and man.
Plot may speak more directly to the guts of Jews and other minorities with none-too-distant histories of persecution—it unearths latent fears in even the most successful and assimilated among us—but the pleasure to be had from the exquisite writing and potent plot is easily accessible to all. The genius of the book lies in the personal and intimate perspective through which we view the pseudo-historic events. Set in our familiar American streets and kitchens, the strength of imperfect yet loving individuals comes across with tenderness and beauty while the rise of Fascism seems cogently and unnervingly plausible.