I now have read 17 books by Philip Roth over the past several months. The one that strikes me as the most interesting today is “The Plot Against America” – Roth’s alternative history about Roosevelt’s loss of his third presidential campaign in 1940, where the winning Republican was none other than Charles Lindbergh, hero of the first solo flight across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis and leader of the America First movement which pledged to keep the United States out of the Second World War. So you had a figure admired by many as not an adventurer, but a hero, who had been a victim of the kidnapping and murder of his young son, and who had been outspoken in his praise of Hitlerian Germany. The public characters are all real historical personalities (the private characters are not); the story is pure fiction.
Throughout the country, Lindbergh’s charisma and program to concentrate on American prosperity, keeping its youth safe from the dangers of war, are very appealing. Presumably, to every group (although African Americans do not play a role in the book)…….with one exception. The Jews. The Jews (or the majority of them) rightly fear Lindbergh’s friendship with the Nazis will only lead to problems, perhaps serious problems, for themselves. Many of them are immigrants from Europe, and have relatives in Europe, including in Germany. They see what is happening there and how Europe has turned against them (the Final Solution is not yet even contemplated, of course), and they fear that America is turning against them as well.
Is it a good book or a bad book? I’m not sure. It’s engaging, well written, a bit silly, and quite farfetched.
But wait a minute! It is 2016 and Donald Trump is elected president of the United States. And Philip Roth writes this book again – only this time, his characters are not Jews, they are Muslims. And President Trump does come up with a way to eliminate further Muslim immigration, and he investigates existing Muslim families, and Muslims begin to be socially isolated and lose employment opportunities, and there are arrests made, and militia groups crop up that take things into their own hands and, countering them, Muslims begin to form their own groups and riots occur, and the government begins to determine that Muslims are out to overthrow the U.S. government and retaliates by more arrests and deportations, and Muslim nations worldwide respond (as only they can) and the U.S. can get no OPEC oil, and our citizens abroad begin to be arrested, and Europe (under increasing Muslim influence) begins to oppose the U.S. on many fronts, and on and on. He could write a great book (hey, hold on, why don’t I write it?)
All of a sudden, “The Plot Against America” seems a little less farfetched. Perhaps this is a book we should all be reading now.
OK, three more. “Sabbath’s Theater” won a National Book Award for Roth, but I am not sure why. It seems, in fact, that Roth’s award winning books are not his best (in my opinion, at least); I am not sure what this says. Mickey Sabbath is a former puppeteer who falls out of love with his wife, more or less, and into love, more or less, with the wife of a Yugoslavian innkeeper. He doesn’t work, he is broke, he loses his mental marbles, he takes advantage of an old successful show business buddy after the death of a mutual friend, he winds up in a mental institution where he finds a new girlfriend (the relationship is not to last), he meets his crazy 100 year old cousin, and he engages in all sorts of obscene, offensive, and illogical acts. This is a book I would just as well forget.
I had read “The Counterlife” several years ago in a class and was very impressed. I read it again, and my mind has not changed. As in so many of his novels, it is the structure that intrigues me more than anything else. Nathan Zuckerman is back in “The Counterlife” (he played no part in the two books mentioned above). Nathan and his brother Henry. The book is divided into five parts. In the first part, Nathan’s brother has died as a result of failed cardiac surgery, and Nathan is left to clean up Henry’s mess. In the second part, Henry does not die, but survives the surgery, and determines, upon recovery, to leave everything behind (wife, children, medical practice, etc.) and move to a kibbutz in the south of Israel where he will start from scratch and become an authentic Jew, again leaving Nathan with a mess.
The third part is like an intermezzo. Nathan is flying back to London (where he lives) from meeting with his brother on the kibbutz. He runs into a young man he knew before from New Jersey, who is on the plane disguised as a religious Jew, but in fact intending to blow up the plane (to bring about the renaissance of the Jewish people – don’t ask). His plot is foiled, and he is arrested by security officials on the plane. Unfortunately, the officials decide that Nathan is his co-conspirator, and he two is arrested and roughed up. And things get worse from there.
Part four is a reversal of the first two parts. It is Nathan who needs the surgery and who dies as a result of it. And it is Henry left to clean up the mess. (An interesting mess, since Henry is having an affair with his assistant, and he knows that Nathan the writer must have written about it, and that he has to destroy the material before his wife finds out about it, and he does by destroying what, in fact, are the first two parts of “The Counterlife”).
And naturally, in the fifth part, Nathan is fine, living with his new English wife in London. They are both ready for the rest of their happy lives, but of course, this does not happen, as Nathan begins to be convinced that his wife is really an anti-Semite and, by the time he gets through with her, she is. Oy.
A great book.
Finally, I read “The Humbling”, a short book, which I liked quite a bit (but which does not seem to have been particularly well reviewed). It’s about an aging actor (about 65), who all of a sudden has a psychological breakdown because he can no longer imagine himself in any role. He puts himself into a psychiatric facility for about a month, leaving no longer a danger to himself, but still unable to work or act. He wife has walked out on him, but he meets a woman 25 years his junior (the daughter of old theater friends) and they start their own affair – she has spent the last 17 years in a lesbian relationship but decides she wants to try men. They fall in love, he is saved, she decides that, in fact, she really is a lesbian, and he is lost. For good. Again, I liked it.