When We Elected Lindbergh
“The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin, $26).
Reading “The Plot Against America,” I thought of two other demented visions of the country, Mad Magazine, and Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” a speculative history like Roth’s, about America after the Germans and Japanese have won the war, when collectors of Mickey Mouse memorabilia are looking for fakes. Mad may be a weird association, but this is nothing if not the weirdest time of our lives, and there is a great long Roth sentence in “The Plot Against America” that no writer born after the war is capable of writing with a straight face. It’s on the third page, “The men worked 50, 60, even 70 or more hours a week; the women worked all the time….” In the 1950s, Mad Magazine was a vaccine against the lies of official America; it gave commercial-free clarity about the manipulations we suffered, to those of us driven mad by the times, but with the terrible side effects of bitterness, irony, skepticism and, finally, disgust with the country — and then with our parents.
But Roth was born to a generation that believed in America, and although some of them were like the undertaker in the first scene of “The Godfather,” who also believed in America, but went outside the courts for justice — Roth’s parents love their country, or what they remember of it.
In the novel, after the fascist Charles Lindbergh’s election as president, they bring 7-year-old Philip and his 12-year-old brother, Sandy, to Washington, D.C., where they visit the monuments, out of love for the threatened promise. And for being a loudmouthed Jew, Herman Roth is thrown out of his hotel. It is impossible to imagine a Baby Boomer writing a book so critical of America and still write, without irony, about the sincerity of Herman Roth’s love for America, his faith in the promise he could already see was broken.
This is the most cynical time in American history. In such a time, endless injustice leaves little room for private emotions like sadness and disappointment, only frustration and outrage. No novelists since the pre-war generation, except the artists of outrage, the specialists in horror and crime, and those who understand the private worlds of the powerless and helpless, the fantasy and romance writers, have found the sources of emotional energy necessary to fill shelves with as many books as Roth has. This is why “The Plot Against America,” a book of social outrage in response to a country losing itself to fear, is the first of Roth’s novels to brush against genre, and why he had to write about today in the frame of pure imagination, and also why a fiction had to be narrated by Philip Roth and not David Kepesh or Nathan Zuckerman, his literary alter egos.
Zuckerman’s books include “American Pastoral,” “I Married a Communist” and “The Human Stain,” books about the changes in American history and how we live with them as private traumas. Roth follows Kafka and Orwell in 1984, who never named the specific politics that they abstracted to create parallel universes of pure allegory, so a novel about the Bush administration, to make something real out of our current unreality, had to be set in some other universe. A fictional character narrating a fantasy would have lost the novel’s special poignancy, the unexpected emotions of a coming of age story, so Philip Roth, real at least in name, narrates instead of Zuckerman.
The story isn’t too complicated. Philip is a precocious third-grader in 1940. He lives in a small apartment in Weequahic, N.J., with his father, mother, brother and 21-year-old cousin, Alvin, his parents’ ward. Everyone in his world is Jewish, and almost no one is religious. Everyone is patriotic: “Our homeland was America. Then the Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed.”
Lindbergh is elected on a platform to keep America out of the European War. The East Coast establishment of the Roosevelts mock Lindberg’s appeal to the people who don’t live in the big cities, and are surprised at the landslide. The red states win.
The book follows the expected structure of a speculative history, the entertainment is the flow of differences between what really happened and what the book describes, every change ringing congratulations for our recognizing it. That Walter Winchell is the book’s political hero, the voice of opposition, is delicious only to readers who remember the name. I suppose that younger readers will recognize what remains of him in Howard Stern, already harassed away from commercial radio, as though his vulgarity is unique, as though the reasons aren’t political.
Life is normal, then it changes a little, and then everything changes: “Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear. Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn’t been president or I hadn’t been the offspring of Jews.”
Herman Roth loses his job to anti-Semitism, gets a night job through Jewish gangster connections and protects his family. The government establishes the Office of American Absorption, and Sandy is shipped to live for a few months with a family of tobacco farmers in Kentucky as part of the Just Folks program, spreading Jews harmlessly around the country. Cousin Alvin runs to Canada to join the army in its fight against the Germans and comes back with a missing leg. Some Jews emigrate.