The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth. Houghton Mifflin, 391 pages, $26.
A little more than 15 years ago, Philip Roth published a slim, peculiar book called The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography, which consisted of a brief letter from “Roth” to his fictional alter ego, Zuckerman; an airbrushed memoir of the author’s first 55 years; and, finally, a long letter to “Roth” from Zuckerman picking apart the airbrushed memoir. Zuckerman is especially dismissive of the sweet chapter (called “Safe at Home”) about young Philip’s boyhood in the “peaceful … haven” of the Weequahic section of Newark. Quoth Zuckerman: “[Y]ou are evidently in a mood to idealize the confining society that long ago ceased impinging on your spirit and to sentimentalize people who now inhabit either New Jersey cemeteries or Florida retirement communities.”
Mr. Roth’s new novel could be called The Counterfacts: It begins in November 1940 with the landslide election of Charles A. Lindbergh as President of the United States, and builds quietly, ominously, until the fall of 1942, when the assassination of Walter Winchell unleashes a national cataclysm.
Lindbergh President? Winchell assassinated? Yes, we’re in the what-if world of counterfactual history, neatly engineered by Mr. Roth to transform the peaceful haven of Weequahic into a site of “perpetual fear” and the safe, charmed boyhood of young Philip Roth into a nightmarish, blood-splattered ordeal complete with blighted lives, simmering fury, murder and looming madness. (Well, that would explain Sabbath’s Theater and The Dying Animal.)
Two years of the nation’s history are boldly reimagined in The Plot Against America, and so is the daily life of the Roth family on Summit Avenue in Weequahic. The “facts,” rendered with loving precision, remain the same: 7-year-old Philip lives in a rented second-floor flat in a small house on a tree-lined street; his father sells insurance for Metropolitan Life; his mother is involved in the P.T.A.; his 12-year-old brother, Sandy, nurtures a precocious artistic talent—”We were a happy family in 1940.” But the change in national government (especially the cozy entente between Hitler and Lindbergh, who campaigned on the promise to keep America out of the European war) has ugly local consequences. The political poisons the personal.
And what is the poison that turns the neighborhood septic? American anti-Semitism—imported from Germany by President Lindbergh. Or, more specifically, the fear of American anti-Semitism. Young Philip’s own encounters with prejudice are very few and relatively anodyne (two incidents in which the epithet “loudmouth Jew” is uttered in his presence, and an odd exchange with an otherwise friendly Italian-American boy who insists, without a trace of rancor, that “Jews drink blood”). Until the spring of 1942, however, the Weequahic Jews don’t experience anything even remotely like persecution. They can’t “justify either their alarm or their composure with hard fact.”
Instead of persecution, they get “Just Folks,” a pushy program of cultural indoctrination administered by the newly created “Office of American Absorption”—the purpose of which is to encourage minorities “to become further incorporated into the larger society.” Just Folks is aimed squarely at neighborhoods like Weequahic: The intent is to send Jewish boys between 12 and 18 to work on farms in the American heartland for eight weeks.
Depending on how you look at it, Just Folks is either a benign voluntary summer program for kids or the first step towards eradicating the kind of ethnic difference that gives Jews their identity. Sandy, the admired big brother, ignoring his parents’ worried protest, ships happily off to Kentucky to work on a tobacco farm. “This doesn’t have anything to do with anti-Semitism,” Sandy tells his father, who strenuously objects to what the mere existence of the Office of American Absorption implies about the status of Jewish citizens, and who fears that the hidden agenda of Just Folks is to “erode the solidarity of the Jewish family.” (That’s precisely what happens: A year later, Sandy is calling the rest of his family “ghetto Jews.”)
The next phase—the Office of American Absorption’s “Homestead 42″ program—is unequivocally sinister. At the prompting of the government, Met Life orders the transfer of Philip’s father (and his family) to a new district office in Danville, Ky. A sugar-coated letter from corporate headquarters congratulates him on being “among the company’s first pioneering ‘homesteaders’ of 1942.” Altogether, 225 Jewish families are accorded this honor, including several of the Roths’ Weequahic friends.
Here’s Walter Winchell’s take: “Item: Whether the Homestead 42 Jews end up in concentration camps à la Hitler’s Buchenwald has yet to be decided by Lindbergh’s two top swastinkers, Vice President Wheeler and Secretary of the Interior Henry Ford. Did I say ‘whether’? Pardon my German. I meant when.” (A fine bit of channeling on Mr. Roth’s part.)
The backlash against Homestead 42 triggers a backlash against Winchell (in September of 1942, “America history … recorded its first large-scale pogrom”), and from there events spiral out of control—along with the plot of The Plot Against America —until the country plunges into chaos.
What’s the point of this counterfactual fantasy? A daring imaginative exercise, it’s a way to see both the country and the Roth family more clearly by making everything thrillingly strange. It’s an explicit rebuke, as well, to those who still insist, despite Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 warning, that It Can’t Happen Here. (Is it also a parable about the dangers of the Bush administration’s flag-waiving assault on civil liberties? Though Mr. Roth, in an essay in The New York Times Book Review, says not, I think I hear faint echoes.)
There’s something delightfully creepy about picturing Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop at a White House state dinner, and the Office of American Absorption is a brilliant device for exposing the coercive, implicitly bigoted side of self-righteous American patriotism, but it’s on the domestic front—back home in meticulously mapped Weequahic—that Mr. Roth’s book succeeds best. (“History is everything that happens everywhere,” Philip’s father tells him. “Even what happens in his house to an ordinary man—that’ll be history too someday.”)
“I wonder,” Mr. Roth writes in the second sentence of the novel, “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.” Most of The Plot Against America is about the dire consequences of Lindbergh’s Presidency, but there’s also a tantalizing undercurrent, a hidden personal history, again counterfactual: What if young Philip could have sloughed off his Jewishness?
Twice in the course of the novel, Philip resolves to run away from home, and in each instance he plans to assume a wholly new identity: First he decides to become an orphan (“I wanted to be a boy on the smallest scale”) and tries to gain admittance to a Catholic orphanage; then he hatches a scheme to go work at a pretzel factory that employs deaf-mutes and earn the money for a one-way ticket to Omaha, Neb., “where Father Flanagan ran Boys Town”—his aim, again, is to be “just a boy and nothing more.” Fear has caused him to internalize the Just Folks agenda: He wants to efface all signs of ethnic difference.
As a writer, of course, Philip Roth has devoted a good deal of his genius to the task of recording for posterity the particularities that make the Weequahic section of Newark in the middle of the 20th century indelibly different (and at the same time representative). In this novel, his 21st, he adds some brilliant touches to that life-long project. My favorite begins with the smell of Christmas trees on a downtown street. He breathes in the “rustic tang” and then he’s off: “There were no trees for sale in our neighborhood—because there was no one to buy them—and so the month of December, if it smelled at all, smelled of something a hissing alley cat had tugged from an overturned garbage can in somebody’s yard, and of supper heating on the stove of a flat whose steamy kitchen window was open a crack to let in air from the alleyway, and of the bursts of noxious coal gas spewed from the furnace chimneys, and of the pail of ashes dragged up from the cellar to be emptied outdoors over slippery patches of sidewalk.” For emphasis, he turns once more to difference: “I traveled downtown … and saw the trees and took a whiff and discovered that, as with many things, for Christians, December was otherwise.”
In this novel about history “turned wrong way round,” it’s always the “otherwise” that counts.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.