Philip Roth’s new novel offers world-weary view wrapped in elegant prose
Rocky Mountain News
Vail CO, Colorado
At the age of 75, the much-celebrated and still much-misunderstood novelist Philip Roth cannot seem to shake the elegiac mood that’s engulfed him in the past decade. Perhaps he doesn’t want to.
Roth’s 29th book is a beautifully crafted, but unmistakably world-weary piece of fiction called “Indignation,” in which the most accomplished literary man to emerge from Newark, N.J., returns once more to his roots ” this time in the form of a blood-spattered kosher butcher shop in that teeming city’s blue-collar Jewish neighborhood.
The year is 1951. The Korean War rages. And an upright, hard-working family called the Messners is beginning to unravel amid the confusions of post-World War II ambition, competition from the meat department of a new supermarket and an insoluble rift between father and son.
Recalling boyhood visits to his uncles’ shops, Indignation’s 19-year-old protagonist and narrator, Marcus Messner, tells us: “That smell of carcass after it’s slaughtered and before it’s been cooked would hit me every time. Then Abe, Muzzy’s son and heir apparent, was killed at Anzio, and Dave, Shecky’s son and heir apparent, was killed in the Battle of the Bulge, and the Messners who lived on were steeped in their blood.”
Before long, we sniff death on every page. As always, though, fiction’s greatest living purveyor of black humor produces a good deal of laughter in the darkness.
Marcus Messner may seem a bit time-worn to connoisseurs of the Rothian obsession. Studious but provincial, innocent but terminally horny, here’s another only child torn between the suffocating values of his old-school Jewish family and a desperate desire to cut loose and reinvent himself in the Void. In other words, say hello to the spiritual first cousin of Alexander Portnoy, and of Roth’s anxiety-ridden double at the typewriter, Nathan Zuckerman.
Ever the baseball fan, the author throws us a curveball early in the count. Unable to cope with his once-beloved father’s growing paranoia and hectoring questions, Marcus flees the family butcher shop and a straight-A freshman year at a homey college in Newark for a mediocre white-bread school 500 miles away, in the alien Midwest.
Attention, all survivors of AmLit 101. The place is called Winesburg College. In Winesburg, Ohio.
Sherwood Anderson’s episodic coming- of-age novel of the same name has seen plenty of reputational ups-and-downs since 1919 ” not least young Ernest Hemingway’s The Torrents of Spring (1926), a savage parody of all things Anderson.
Roth, too, takes his shots by inverting Anderson’s sentimental style and creating far more wicked small-town stereotypes ” an idiotic, anti-Semitic college dean; a slick Jewish- American Prince called Sonny Cottler; Marcus’ pumpkin-headed roommate, Elwyn Ayers, who lives only to inherit his father’s tugboat business.
But the novelist is clearly up to something else, too. While reimagining the travails of Anderson’s questing hero George Willard in struggling Marcus Messner, Roth does more than reverse the direction of the classic American journey of discovery by going from city to backwater. Deploying the ironic tragicomedy of which he’s the master, he also dumps what the Germans call the bildungsroman ” the novel of youthful development ” right on its butt.
In the last chapter of Winesburg, Ohio, a hopeful George Willard says goodbye to his repressed hometown ” a “backdrop on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.”
No such luck for Marcus. His indignant trials and errors in Winesburg include falling in love with another carnal and troubled Roth shiksa; igniting the wrath of the lone campus bohemian, a fellow Jew named Bertram Flusser; working an odious weekend job at the local tap room (nice bow: Roth calls it the New Willard Inn) and, when these 256 pages are done, succeeding not at all in finding or reinventing himself.
Like most of Roth’s non-heroes, however, Marcus emerges all the more poignant for trying. As for the ancient charge that the protagonist of any Roth book is, by definition, at once self-absorbed and self-loathing (“a Jewish anti-Semite,” detractors still call him), that argument doesn’t wash very well in view of Indignation’s empathy for all the Messners. Instead, the neo-McCarthyites in the crowd ” you know who you are ” could make a better case against Roth’s political stance.
His burlesque of early Cold War paranoia, embodied in the creepy school dean and in a pseudo-patriotic speech by a windbag college president in the wake of a campus panty raid, is positively Kafkaesque ” or Dr. Strangelove-ian. In this social scheme, small-minded Winesburg stands for the entire nation at mid-20th century.
For Roth in these days of his late career ” so bleakly nostalgic they can leave readers yearning for the snappish wiseguy of 1969 ” the 1940s clearly remain America’s most heroic moment. If I don’t misread his darkly comic fiction and his evocative volumes of memoir, the country was, in his view, then united by common cause and cohesive ideals, despite virulent bigotries.
After the war ” by 1951, say ” the demons of greed and fear, bloody ideology and ruthless ambition, began to prevail, permanently dimming the hopes of any butcher’s son from Newark and, if I don’t miss my guess, of the great American novelist who grew up in that city and is now and forever haunted by our mass desensitivity to the gore of the slaughterhouse.
In any event, we are living now not in Sherwood Anderson’s realm, but in a fallen world from which Roth might like to turn his keen and jaundiced eye, but cannot.
Bill Gallo is a freelance writer living in Denver.
Like “Indignation,” many of Philip Roth’s later books have taken on the subject of death. In 2005, an interviewer asked Roth what he fears about dying. “Oblivion,” he said. “Of not being alive, quite simply, of not feeling life, not smelling it. But the difference between today and the fear of dying I had when I was 12, is that now I have a kind of resignation toward reality. It no longer feels like a great injustice that I have to die.”