The Ghost Writer

Why does Philip Roth's latest novel read like Arthur Miller?

Philip Roth
The Plot Against America
Houghton Mifflin

It is a sign of the wit and wisdom of Philip Roth that the mythical government of President Charles A. Lindbergh, in the make-believe 1940 of The Plot Against America, does not send America's Jews into boxcars and incinerators. No, instead, Roth has devised a more wry and black-comic fate for Mr. and Mrs. Herman Roth of Newark, N.J.: They are expelled...to red states.

Lindbergh, elected on a "Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War" ticket, devises the Office of American Absorption, which in turn creates a program called Just Folks--a way to get city Jews (and other folks...but mostly Jews) into the backwoods, to connect with an essential "Americanness." Eventually, it is discovered that this is a gerrymandering ploy to break up Jewish electoral strongholds. But until then, chess-playing and math-problem-solving Jewish youths are exiled to Paducah, doomed to discover words like flyings and toppings and curing barns. What could be more insidious in a Rothian world than bureaucratically enforced goyification? Sandy Roth, the main character's older brother, takes a pass on the corned beef with drippings--he'll take a BLT with extra mayo, please.

As Sandy abandons the family for the pleasures of mingling with gentiles ("You ghetto Jews are all alike!" he inevitably yells at the folks), brother Alvin goes abroad to fight the Huns--and comes back with a king-sized Oedipal hangover and a symbolic castration: a missing leg. There is finally a sigh-inducing scene where he hurls his father to the living-room floor, inveighing, "I lost this leg for you, for the Jews! And for WHAT!" As the anguish of the sons brings the true-believing father down low, the details of 1940s Newark take on a Neil Simon-y shuffle-ball-step rhythm. The effect is to make Roth's plotting--despite its subversive premise--feel safe, woolly, comfortingly mothball-scented.

A sellout, pro-Lindbergh rabbi gives Sandy this devastating summary of Alvin's devout parents: "They are keeping faith with the certainty of Jewish travail." And who has kept that faith more fervently than the author? In the last decade, American letters' leading rant addict and most celebrated self-abuser has taken pages from the playbook of Arthur Miller--the Lincolnesque prosecutor who could find moral pathos in an unvalidated parking slip. The late-middle-aged sexual grump of Sabbath's Theater and the high-flying hipster blasphemer of Operation Shylock have given way to the historian-pessimist and family-heartbreak tragedian.

This time out, Roth has created a king-sized "What if?" and colored inside the lines with magnificent details. (My favorite involves a wartime amputee who emerges from the surf pointing at his stumpy leg to scare the locals: "Shark--shark!") But the central story is morosely and monotonously Miller-like. And though Roth makes you smell the twice-scrubbed Formica and the week-old lox, it is the sermonizing that comes through.

In the New York Times Book Review a few weeks ago, Roth cautioned readers against reading The Plot as an allegory for Bush and Ashcroft's America. And indeed, the first interpretation of The Plot that avails itself is that the book is a comic paranoid fantasia on the Jews' historical dislocation. Their sense of home, it turns out, is no truer for Brooklyn than it was for Berlin. Yet can Roth legitimately intend this allegory as an unironic Zionist screed? Does he really mean to suggest that the Jews' only refuge is where they own a loaded gun? The deep ingenuity of The Plot is that while Roth raises all manner of allegorical hints, he never lands on anything. The book is neither a pro-Sharon endorsement nor an anti-Patriot Act jeremiad.

I suspect Roth turned in this direction because his smutty, angry novels were wailed on as "a dead end." But I wish Roth could bring to The Plot's homegrown fascism some of the obscene surrealism of Operation Shylock. That career-topping book scrutinized the lamentable fate of the Jews from every scurrilous, blasphemous, sick-joke angle. The Plot, by contrast, leaves you groaning, Let Roth be Roth: Its solemn blackboard diagram of the disintegration of a family feels like a pious attempt at self-reform--not to mention a desperate sprint toward the winner's podium in Oslo.

 
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