I’ve sworn off Philip Roth novels in the past but the premise of The Plot Against America (2004) intrigued me enough to check out the audiobook. It’s a good thing too since I like this more than any other Roth book I’ve read. (Previously: Portnoy’s Complaint, Goodbye Columbus, and American Pastoral).
The premise of the book is that in 1940 the Republican party nominates Charles Lindbergh as their candidate and the aviation hero coasts to victory of Roosevelt on an isolationist America First platform. Before Pearl Harbor this was actually a popular movement in the United States to stay out of Europe’s wars and Lindbergh was a prominent proponent. In the novel, the Lindbergh administration signs an agreement with Hitler and Pearl Harbor never happens.
The real Lindbergh was also known for anti-Semitic sentiments and actions that many see as sympathetic to the the Nazis. So the novel is grounded in historical basis of the potential for a Fascist administration in the United States.
What makes the novel great though is that it is told as the memories of a young Philip Roth growing up in the Jewish section of Newark, NJ. Everything in the novel is filtered through the views of Roth’s family and neighbors and historical characters like Walter Winchell who becomes the most vocal opponent to the Lindbergh administration. In this way Roth never makes it actually clear that Lindbergh is actually the Nazi collaborator that Philip’s father fears he is or if he is simply a pragmatist trying to keep America out of war as many other Americans believe. A prominent rabbi who befriends and supports Lindbergh and Philip’s older brother are two more characters who add to the uncertainty. Alternating with this alternate history is the more personal and sometimes mundane story of Philip’s coming-of-age in 1940’s Newark, where many of my favorite parts of the novel take place.
A lot of criticism takes the ending of the novel to task. I feel much the same way that it is too clean and abrubt, but think it would work better if Roth hadn’t tied up the national story before telling the personal story of the Roth family in the wake of anti-Semitic riots. Swap those last too sections and I think the ending would be much stronger. Also, I’m a bit perturbed by events in American history that seem to be exactly the same despite that alterations Roth has made in the novel. For example he has the 1942 World Series results exactly the same neglecting that with America not at war there would be star players at home who would change the balance. Similarily he has Nazi Germany surrendering to the post-Lindbergh US in May 1945 even after stating that the Nazi’s strengthened their hold on Europe by the US not getting involved in 1941.
These are minor quibbles though as this is a well-written and thought-provoking novel.
Author Roth, Philip.
Title The plot against America [sound recording] / Philip Roth.
Publication Info. Prince Frederick, MD : Recorded Books, p2004.
Description 11 sound discs (13.5 hr.) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.