By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 233 pages, $26
First, an apology: Like many of his fans, I expect a masterpiece every time a new Philip Roth novel is announced, and when it falls short, I carp and quibble and point invidiously to past Roth triumphs. Sorry.
Indignation is flawed, but I promise to ignore the problem as long as I can (it’s a case of ill-considered narrative strategy) and celebrate instead a magnificent display of writerly talent: a lean, powerful novel with bold characters who command attention; scenes of impressive dramatic intensity and comic vitality; language that blasts the reader’s cozy complacency (it’s not called Indignation for nothing); and a theme that swells imperceptibly from a murmur to a satisfying roar.
We begin in Newark in the early 1950s, sempiternal source of so many Roth sagas. Remember the glove factory in American Pastoral (1997), the long, loving descriptions of the craftsmanship at Newark Maid Leatherware? This time we get a tour of a kosher butcher shop, with 18-year-old Marcus Messner as our guide. He’s working for his father in the seven months between his early graduation from high school and his freshman year at a local college. Are you ready? “It was my job not just to pluck the chickens but to eviscerate them. You slit the ass open a bit and you stick your hand up and you grab the viscera and you pull them out.” (The insistent repetition of “you” is not accidental.)
Marcus is wound too tight. He tells us he’s a “prudent, responsible, diligent, hardworking A student who went out with only the nicest girls, a dedicated debater, and a utility infielder for the varsity baseball team.” You can hear how tight he’s wound in the redundancy of “prudent, responsible, diligent, hardworking.” He’s inherited his intensity from his father, who flips—suddenly, inexplicably—the moment Marcus stops working at the shop and starts attending college in Newark. The doting father hounds the dutiful son with questions about where he’s been: “You are a boy with a magnificent future before you—how do I know you’re not going to places where you can get yourself killed?” The barrage of crazy worry is intolerable, and so Marcus transfers to Winesberg, a small liberal arts and engineering college in central Ohio, 500 miles from his deranged paternal unit and smack in the middle of Sherwood Anderson’s WASP America.
Did I mention that there’s a war going on? No, not the one we’re fighting today (but yes, that one, too)—I mean the Korean War, which haunts Marcus at every step: If he’s not in college, he’ll get drafted, sent to Korea, and killed in a frozen trench by a bayonet-wielding communist. (Thereby confirming his father’s anguished and “unrelenting intimations of catastrophe.”)
THE BULK OF Indignation takes place in Winesberg. It’s the classic setup: a Jew emerging from a Jewish working-class enclave into a middle-class, decidedly non-Jewish environment. This time it produces hilarity, torrents of indignation on all sides, and (hey, this is Roth!) a whopping case of romantic obsession triggered by an unexpected blow job that nearly unhinges our overwrought young hero.
Marcus careens from one bruising confrontation to the next: He clashes first with one roommate, Flusser, who torments him for obscure reasons (turns out Flusser is gay and self-tormented), and later with Elwyn, an engineering student “constructed on completely utilitarian lines” who’s comically close-mouthed. Here’s a priceless scene in which Marcus, bewildered after his intoxicating first date with the beautiful Olivia, can’t suppress an idiotic boast:
“‘She blew me.’
“‘Uh-huh,’ Elwyn said, without turning his head from the page he was studying.
“‘I got sucked off.’
“‘Yep,’ said Elwyn in due time, teasing out the syllable to signal that his attention was going to remain on his work …
“‘I didn’t even ask for it,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking for it. … And she blew me. Did you ever hear of that happening?’
“‘Nope,’ replied Elwyn.”
NEEDLESS TO SAY, Olivia is trouble. But not so much trouble as Hawes D. Caudwell, dean of men, who unleashes Marcus’ capacity for indignation. Caudwell is concerned that Marcus isn’t “fitting into the Winesberg community” (he’s right), and in the course of an interview in his office manages to push every button on Marcus’ crowded console.
Chapel—a college requirement that makes our boy’s blood boil—triggers the tirade. Before you can say relax, son, Marcus is reeling off yards of Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” (memorized in his high-school debating days), jumping out of his chair and wagging his finger in front of the blue-eyed Caudwell’s lantern jaw.
It’s a remarkable scene, especially in the way that it divides the reader’s loyalty between the priggish dean, who means no harm, and the hysterically self-righteous student, whose objections are reasonable in theory but utterly out of place, his intellectual probity and proud liberal principles distorted comically, tragically, by youthful self-importance and by fear and resentment he can neither acknowledge nor curb. (In calmer moments Marcus tells himself, “Treat their chapel as part of the job you have to do to get through this place as valedictorian—treat it the way you treat eviscerating the chickens.”)
The counterblast comes late in the novel from Albin Lentz, the college president, who hectors the male students after an epic panty raid, reminding them of the war being fought on the other side of the globe: “Do you have any idea how privileged, and how lucky you are to be here watching football games … and not there being shot at …?” (This year’s college football season is just kicking off, while more than 150,000 American troops are deployed in Iraq. Panty raids, alas, are a thing of the past.) Lambasting the students’ “barbaric pursuit of thoughtless fun,” Lentz’s indignant harangue takes wing: “Beyond your dormitories, a world is on fire, and you are kindled by underwear. Beyond your fraternities, history unfolds daily—warfare, bombings, wholesale slaughter, and you are oblivious of it all.”
If you’re still looking for the link between the carnage in Korea (or Iraq), our boy Marcus (still agog over his blow job), and the kosher butcher shop in Newark, here’s a gorgeous Roth riff that ties up the package:
“I envisioned my father’s knives and cleavers whenever I read about the bayonet combat against the Chinese in Korea. I knew how murderously sharp sharp could be. And I knew what blood looked like, encrusted around the necks of the chickens where they had been ritually slaughtered, dripping out of the beef onto my hands when I was cutting a rib steak along the bone, seeping through the brown paper bags despite the wax paper wrappings within, settling into the grooves crosshatched into the chopping block by the force of the cleaver crashing down.”
I’M NOT SPOILING THE end by telling you that Marcus is dead—he tells us so himself on page 54, blandly announcing that he’s stuck in an afterlife that consists solely of remembrance, “memory upon memory, nothing but memory.” This (like the twist at the end) is a gimmick unworthy of the rest of the novel. I understand that Mr. Roth couldn’t have an elderly Marcus looking back from the safety of some easeful maturity on his stressed and chaotic youth; and I understand why he wouldn’t have wanted Nathan Zuckerman (whose memory is shot, anyway) to dredge up Marcus Messner’s brief, unhappy career from his vast hoard of Newark stories—but there has to be a better way than this.
Read Indignation—read it with an ear for the naked power of Philip Roth at full tilt—and tell me if I’m wrong.
Adam Begley edits the Observer Review of Books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.