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Lindbergh’s America
Reading Philip Roth post–November 2

If reading Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America pre–November 2 suggested a twisted parable about current events, then reading it after the elections is downright eerie. Roth’s 26th book (and 22nd work of fiction) recounts the landslide presidential-election victory of aviator Charles Lindbergh over Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 and its aftermath. Is Roth’s novel somehow about — even a protest against — President George W. Bush and his policies in Iraq? There are parallels. Under a Republican president, the country feels the pressure of a war on foreign soil. President Lindbergh passes the Homestead Act, with its creepy parallel to the Patriot Act. Lindbergh barnstorms around the country on solo flights, suggesting President Bush’s barnstorm landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln.

But despite the overtones of typicality, the fictional situation described in The Plot Against America never fits the reality of 2004. If there’s a parallel between Lindbergh’s isolationist "America First" platform and Bush’s interventionist doctrine, it’s a twisted one. And since the novel’s publication, Roth has pointed out that his interest in writing a fictional account of the years 1940-’42 was based solely on his reading of history and biography. His 27-page postscript cites A. Scott Berg’s biography of Lindbergh, Neal Gabler’s biography of Jewish columnist and radio personality Walter Winchell (who declares himself a candidate running against Lindbergh), and at least 20 other books, not to mention numerous encyclopædia, magazine, and newspaper articles from or about the period.

What strikes those eerie notes post–November 2 are lines like, "How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination." Or a Jewish mother’s reply to her husband’s assurances about the power of the ballot box: "The American people will vote, and the Republicans will be even stronger." Ouch!

Of course, Roth couldn’t have foreseen how some of these passages would read following the elections: the book was published in October and was several years in the writing. But give a brilliant novelist rein on his obsessions and collateral truths are bound to emerge.

As has often been the case, Roth’s starting point for his obsessions is his own life, and his own family. He begins with Herman and Bess Roth, their sons Sanford, 12, and Philip, 7. Newark has become Roth’s Yoknapatawpha County. Its Weequahic neighborhood is peopled by gentle, hard-working souls, horny adolescents, avaricious businessmen, rabbis, and gangsters. All manner of social types, most of them Jews. Among them is Philip’s cousin Alvin, an orphan, taken in by Philip’s parents, whose criminal inclinations are apparent early on. Philip listens spellbound to Alvin’s stories of working for one of Newark’s fast-talking Jewish millionaires: "Stories of the carnivore descendants of the giant apes who once inhabited the ancient forests and have left the trees, where all day long they nibbled on leaves, to come to Newark and work downtown."

Roth takes us back to a time when anti-Semitism was not only universal but accepted, when two of the biggest heroes in American life — Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh — were overt anti-Semites, when Father Coughlin’s anti-Semitic diatribes were broadcast nationwide. As Roth moves his real-life family into the fictional world of the Lindbergh presidency, you might find yourself referring to that postscript in order to keep track of "where historical fact ends and historical imagining begins." Roth keeps his story rooted in his family, his language toned down, his recasting of events limited to those two years. But as real history and invented history continue to diverge, his story loses credibility: the fictional world becomes unmoored by the real world. When, as in his famously "autobiographical" Zuckerman books, Roth gives his own story a slight twist, he can maintain its coherence — because who’s to say what "really" happened? Here, his invention works against known history, and he’s forced to take an unlikely left turn in the book’s last third.

So don’t read this Plot for its plot or the broad outlines of Roth’s story; read it for its character studies, its incidental details, its spot-on impersonation of a Winchell campaign speech. Read it for the scene of Herman Roth being called a "loudmouth Jew" at the family’s trip to the Lincoln Memorial, for its author’s anxiety about Jewish (read: ethnic) identity and American identity, for the unerring rise and fall of its long sentences and their bitter, ironic twists. Roth titled one of his books The Counterlife, and he suggested all that can befall a person if his or her life takes just a slight turn. Here, all America takes a slight turn when it falls in thrall to "a goyisch idiot flying a stupid plane."

Issue Date: November 26 - December 2, 2004
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