Published in 2004, Philip Roth’s book received the Society of American Historians Award for “outstanding historical novel on an American theme.” Suggested by one of my blogging friends, this novel came at me with the force of locomotive.
Told mostly through the eyes of a seven-year old boy living in Newark, NJ from 1940 – 42, Roth uses historical characters and events as the framework for an eerily plausible dystopian America, in which aviation hero, Charles Lindbergh, has defeated FDR in his bid for a third presidential term.
Philip, our wide-eyed, young narrator, observes the workings of a mysterious adult world through the incomprehensible activities and reactions of a tight-knit, Jewish community that includes his older brother and cousin, both of whom he worships, but both of whom resist the proud and stubborn wisdom of Philip’s father. Philip’s mother grows in depth and stature as the “plot against America” thickens and threatens the safety of her family. Always hovering in the adult psyche are the ages-old pogroms, which of course, youth never fully take seriously.
Lindbergh’s America is, at outward appearance, determined to stay out of the war by building up it’s military personnel and technology, thereby creating jobs at home while walling itself off from foreign danger. Security by might. At the ugly heart of isolationism is a growing anti-Semitic movement, evidenced by the “Homestead 42” act tailored to weaken Jewish political and social ties by breaking up Jewish communities, re-educating Jewish children, and isolating Jewish families among rural goyim enclaves where Jews become instant outcasts. Lindbergh deviously uses vain Jewish leaders as Judas goats to guide their congregants into the clever plot that will inevitably expose Jews (and then blacks, and then . . . ) as the American problem.
Roth could not have written a more appropriate essay about our current political situation. Presciently, his President Lindbergh is a remarkable model for the current American President (aka #45): arrogant, duplicitous, given to wordplay, symbolism, and fascist ideology. Lindbergh uses his private airplane gad-abouts to rouse the admiration of his followers, much as #45 uses 140-character, early-morning tirades to imply how hard he is working to “Make America Great Again.” In Roth’s America, Lindbergh admires and romances Hitler like #45 courts Putin. Radio personality, Walter Winchell’s outrageous bid to unseat the president in the next election, rivals the tenacious bid of Bernie Sanders. FDR, as Lindbergh’s predecessor, could sit in for Barack Obama. Roth’s anti-Semitic theme duplicates America’s Islamophobia. (Among the other phobias that are paralyzing the reasoning abilities of a wide swath of Americans.) Roth even recreates, right here in America, a version of the infamous Kristallnacht uprising. In this novel we observe that “A political catastrophe of unimaginable proportions was transforming a free society into a police state” and America was on the brink of war in alliance, not with Britain and Canada, but with Hitler’s Nazis against Britain and Canada.
Roth’s Mayor La Guardia claims, “There’s a plot afoot all right, and I’ll gladly name the forces propelling it—hysteria, ignorance, malice, stupidity, hatred, and fear. . . . How it must please the Führer (Putin?) to be poisoning our country with this sinister nonsense.”
Despite the chilling, all too familiar themes, Roth weaves the story together with grace and moments of laugh-out-loud humor. I found myself alternately marveling at the prose, gasping at the parallels to my world, and chuckling at the boyish interpretation of adult behavior and life in general. This book would make a fabulous film.