Wednesday, October 20, 2004

As a fan of both alternate history and self-loathing Jewish authors, I enjoyed the venerable Philip Roth's latest novel, 'The Plot Against America'. It's getting more press than some of Roth's other recent works for its fascinating premise — during the chaotic, isolationist days leading up to America's entry into World War II, the famed pilot and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh makes a surprise rise for president, defeating FDR in the 1940 election. Under Lindbergh's leadership, America not only avoids entry into World War II, but anti-Semitic policies gain strength. "Voluntary" relocation programs are created, aimed at breaking up Jewish communities by sending families to places like Montana and Kentucky. Roth extrapolates Lindbergh's aim from historical fact about the pilot's admiration for Hitler; he takes it to an extreme, of course, but shows the potential ease in which a fascist government could arise.

"Plot" chooses to follow one Jewish New Jersey family's experience under the Lindbergh administration. Roth actually makes his own family the main characters, and himself, as an 8-year-old boy, the protagonist, in a kind of "what-if" imagining. It's a smart choice that gives real emotional heft as young Philip deals with a cousin being wounded after he joins Canada's army to fight the Nazis, his older brother becoming a poster boy for Jewish "assimilation" and his parents' outrage, worries and fear under President Lindbergh. The novel features Roth's usual great characterization and dialogue. The alternate history never feels forced, and the war vs. peace, liberty vs. oppression arguments are just as strong today (I don't think, however, Lindbergh is meant to be a straight analogy for George Bush). It may not be Roth's best book, but you're talking about a man who's written a dozen classics, and it's certainly an excellent read.

Where it fails a bit is in the ending, where the credible alternate history suddenly dissolves into a series of fantastic developments, pushing the edge of believability and getting a bit absurd. It'd work if the rest of the novel had this farcical tone, but it seems a bit abrupt. Weak climax aside, "The Plot Against America" is well worth reading.

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