Monday, October 18, 2004

Homeland Insecurity

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. Houghton-Mifflin. $26.00.

The premise of Philip Roth’s new novel is a real grabber: it’s America in 1940, and Charles A. Lindbergh is elected President. The flying ace and notorious Hitler pal quickly puts the country on the road to fascism; genteel anti-Semitism becomes government policy, outright hatred gains social approval, a homegrown war against the Jews is on, and eight-year-old Philip Roth and his family find their lives ruptured from within and without.

Told in the form of a fictional memoir, The Plot Against America is both a deeply personal nightmare, an imaginative reflection on how history chooses its events, angels and devils, and a kind of indirect (if not literal) reflection of life under George W. Bush -- and something short of a success. It is a wind-up toy that proves a lot easier for Roth to start than to stop, a good idea that goes only so far and then quits, a novel of alternate history that is all pumped-up with purpose and finally stymied by a lack of ambition.

No question, Roth invests himself deeply in the family story at the heart of the book, tapping into a rich well of childhood memories and paying a somewhat ironic homage to life in Roosevelt’s America, where life, he assures us, was just hunky-dory for the Jews. “We were a happy family in 1940,” the author tells us. The Roths live in a Jewish neighborhood in Hillside, New Jersey, all the men have jobs, all the women are devoted homemakers, and work more than religion “identified and distinguished our neighbors.” Philip's father, Herman, is an insurance salesman for Metropolitan Life, his mother Bess scrimps and saves, and they all make do about as well as any other local family. The idea of establishing a homeland in Palestine is completely foreign to them; the only one who cares about that is a raggedy old man who comes by every month with a collection box, who “seemed unable to get it through his head that we’d already had a homeland for three generations ... America was our homeland."

But, long before the worst happens, there are cracks in this rosy picture. Herman gets the offer of a promotion but turns it down because it will mean moving to a Gentile neighborhood where, he knows, his family will be outcasts. The American homeland isn't the friendliest place for Jews, which soon becomes even more apparent on the national stage, where the democratic vision of Roosevelt -- willing to wage war against the threat of Hitler -- soon gives way to the isolationist rhetoric of Lindbergh. In the new administration, Hitler becomes our ally in the cause of anti-communism, and the tide quickly turns for Jewish life in America. Lindbergh's Cabinet has a new department, the Office of American Absorption, whose "Just Folks" program tries to mainstream Jewish young people into good old Southern Christian right-thinking American life. The country also gears up for a new Homestead Act, where participating companies relocate Jewish employees and their families to Kentucky.

The Roths and their neighbors are torn between beating the opposition and joining them. As the moral center of the family, Herman is determined for the family to stay rooted to its culture; his wife's sister, Evelyn, becomes the lover of a respected Jewish leader who serves as Lindbergh's all-too-willing cultural stoolie. Also standing at polar opposites in the family are Philip's older brother, Sandy, who is recruited into Just Folks and comes home a convert, and Herman's troubled nephew Alvin, who impulsively goes to Canada to fight the Nazis, and returns home as a grim, sickly, emaciated paraplegic -- and a living reminder of the threat of their own destruction.

On the national level, the change in administration carves out some different roles for the great figures of the 1940s, and there's some truly spirited casting in Roth's realigned history. Walter Winchell, the premiere gossip columnist of his day, is Lindbergh's fierce opposition, along with New York Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia and (in a reduced role) Roosevelt himself. There are, also, odd, dissonant echoes of events to come: presidential pardons, the mob madness following the Rodney King verdict, and the emergence of our current president. It doesn't take a lot of guesswork to see a subtly crafted critique of Bush's America in Lindbergh's, where tensions are torqued up by suspicion, paranoia, and gross government interference in the name of national security.

Great stuff? So far as it goes, yes, but Roth's imagination peters out toward the end, when he sets matters a-right with a fairly ridiculous plot twist. He cuts and runs for an obvious reason: if you really take this plot to its logical conclusion, you're talking about a full-scale domestic holocaust, and a book that raises larger aesthetic questions than the more modest ones Roth seems to have in mind. You end it with the vague unsettling feeling of an opportunity lost, that here was a chance for a grand Rothian dystopia. What we have instead is a disappointment: a what-if that coulda-been.

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