hroughout his career, Philip Roth has imagined alternate fates for characters very much like himself: bright, sensitive boys who grow up to become self-conscious, conflicted men, torn between duty and desire, a longing to belong and a rage to rebel - artists or academics, estranged from their lower-middle-class Jewish roots and beset, at worst, by narcissistic worries, literary disappointments and problems with women.
In his provocative but lumpy new novel, "The Plot Against America," Mr. Roth tries to imagine an alternate fate for the United States with the highest possible stakes. What if, he asks, the flying ace Charles A. Lindbergh had defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 election, and what if Lindbergh (who in real life articulated anti-Semitic sentiments and isolationist politics) had instituted a pro-Nazi agenda?
Of course, this brand of historical fiction (or "counterfactual" history) is hardly new. In "It Can't Happen Here," Sinclair Lewis created a portrait of the United States as a fascist dictatorship under the rule of a New England demagogue. In "The Man in the High Castle," Philip K. Dick conjured up a Japanese- and-Nazi-occupied America in which slavery was legal again and Jews hid behind assumed names. In "SS-GB," Len Deighton imagined a Nazi-occupied Britain in which Churchill had been executed. And in "Fatherland," Robert Harris postulated a world in which the Nazis had won World War II and covered up the Holocaust.
What sets Mr. Roth's historical nightmare apart is that it is narrated by a boy named Philip Roth and that it describes the day-by-day fallout of an anti-Semitic administration on members of an ordinary American family who happen to be Jews. But while the portions of the book depicting the fictional Roth family of Newark do an understated - and at times, deeply affecting - job of showing how violently public events can intrude upon the private realm of family and dent the shiny daydreams of a young boy, Mr. Roth never, even momentarily, persuades the reader to set aside the knowledge that Roosevelt won a third term in 1940 and that Nazism did not triumph in the United States. This failure stems, in large measure, from the fact that the novel is based not on a war going one way instead of another, but on a nation's social machinery producing a very different result than it actually did, and Mr. Roth's reluctance to spend a lot of energy on imagining exactly how and why that might have happened.
While the author tries, as he did in his "American Trilogy" novels ("American Pastoral," "I Married a Communist" and "The Human Stain"), to turn a wide-angled camera lens on the United States by creating a parable about the loss of innocence and the costs of "the indigenous American berserk," "The Plot Against America" hurries toward a preposterous (albeit clever) ending and takes place in a political landscape that remains cartoony in the extreme - a sort of high-concept, comic-book landscape that might work in a big-screen extravaganza or satiric potboiler but that feels oddly flimsy here, especially when foregrounded with characters as realistic and psychologically vivid as members of the Roth family.
"The Plot Against America" is a novel that can be read, in the current Bush era, as either a warning about the dangers of isolationism or a warning about the dangers of the Patriot Act and the threat to civil liberties. Yet it is also a novel that can be read as a not-altogether-successful attempt to mesh two incompatible genres: the political-historical thriller and the coming-of-age tale.
The language Mr. Roth employs in this novel is the allusive, decorous prose of "The Ghost Writer" and "Letting Go," not the manic, uproarious voice of "Portnoy," and the Roth family described in these pages is very much the same family that the author described in his 1988 book "The Facts" and his 1991 memoir "Patrimony": young Philip, a third grader, still "the good child, obedient both at home and at school - the willfulness largely inactive and the attack set to go off at a later date"; his brother, Sandy, several years older and already an accomplished artist; their doting, ever vigilant mother, Bess; and their feisty, tenacious father, Herman, a man his son once described as possessing "absolutely totalistic notions of what is good and what is right."In "The Facts," Mr. Roth wrote about his childhood idyll in Newark: though World War II was a booming, distant threat, it was faraway and vaguely abstract, and young Philip felt his world to be "as safe and peaceful a haven for me as his rural community would have been for an Indiana farm boy." The family, he grew up believing, "was an inviolate haven against every form of menace, from personal isolation to gentile hostility."In "The Plot Against America," all that has changed. With Lindbergh in the White House and anti-Semitic violence on the streets, Philip suddenly sees his parents scared, helpless and unable to protect him. He hears of friends and neighbors fleeing to Canada and sees others forced to move away under a government relocation program. He witnesses a violent fight between his idealistic father and a cynical cousin, and an equally bitter fight between his father and his aunt, who is married to a prominent rabbi who has become a Lindbergh collaborator.
"A new life began for me," Philip recalls. "I'd watched my father fall apart, and I would never return to the same childhood." He has seen, he says, "the unfolding of the unforeseen." Like so many Roth characters before him, Philip has been unmoored from his roots, but in this case not by any willful, rebellious act of his own, but by the convulsions of history, caroming through his family's life and that of the nation.
Scenes of the Roth family at home are intercut with long, newsreel-like accounts of Lindbergh's pro-Hitler presidency (wildly extrapolated from historically documented accounts of the real Lindbergh's anti-Semitic statements and involvement in the isolationist America First movement). We're told that Lindbergh has signed accords with Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, that the radio personality Walter Winchell has emerged as the president's most vociferous opponent and that anti-Semitic riots have erupted around the country.
The secret reason behind Lindbergh's actions is unceremoniously dropped on the reader, and the overall novel, too, is brought to an abrupt conclusion that only underscores the slapdash contrivance of Mr. Roth's historical projections. The real drama in this book does not concern the Lindbergh presidency or World War II, but rather the effect that these huge, clanging events have on the Roth family and on Philip's boyhood consciousness. The drama lies in him watching his frightened but resourceful mother try to keep her family safe in the face of events completely beyond her control, and in watching his furious but determined father try to reconcile his expectations of the world with a terrible new reality.
In the end, this novel tries to link the personal concerns of so much of Mr. Roth's early fiction with the sweeping, historical tableau of his American trilogy. If the telescope turned on America in this novel sorely lacks the verisimilitude and keen social observation found in "American Pastoral" and "The Human Stain," the microscope it turns on the Roths still provides an intimate glimpse of one family's harrowing encounter with history.
[from the NYT]