Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War

I'm in awe of Philip Roth. I can't truthfully say that he's my favorite American author, but he may be the most talented living American author who I've read. He has such a quiet yet thorough command of the language, the ability to create vividly realistic scenarios with a few murmured words.

I read his "American Pastoral" in college, and in my mind, that's one of the few books in the running for the Great American Novel. I tend to think of the GAN as being the book that captures the transitory essence of living in America. The most famous example is probably The Great Gatsby, which, in a surprisingly brief length, managed to convey the most crucial features of the American character: our drive for self-improvement, our eagerness to impress, our resilience and capacity for re-invention, the way we tell stories about ourselves and start to believe them. American Pastoral is a longer book, and you could say that it covers an even greater range: it focuses on family, the core building block of American society, and all that flows from it: generation gaps, the way children reject the teachings of their parents, the mixture of comfort and anxiety that comes from being closely bound with others' lives. It also gives a frank (and never boring) look into the role of business in America: how we shape our businesses and derive pride from them, and also how we fight against them. It shows the poisonous impact of politics on personal relationships, and the powerful effect religion (particularly religious conversion) can exert on relationships. I'm not saying that AP is BETTER than GG... but it's darn good, and it paints a very broad canvas.

My latest Roth book, "The Plot Against America," doesn't shoot for another home-run like AP, but it manages to keep exploring some of Roth's same concerns while operating in a very different mode. AP was nominally one of the "Zuckerman" novels, a loosely connected fictional world created by Roth that include Nathan Zuckerman, a Jewish character and often narrator. TPAA isn't a Zuckerman novel; instead, it's set in an alternate history (!) and features a young narrator named "Philip Roth".


Alternate history novels seem like genre fiction, but this is anything but. TPAA does get a lot of great mileage out of its historical conceit, but as is always the case with the Roth novels I've read, the core of the novel doesn't come from the plot; instead, it comes from the relationships between its characters and the thoughts of its protagonists. (Think of a highly readable version of "Ulysses" and you have a great idea of what to expect: humanism, compassion, sorrow.)

That said, I'm a sucker for genre fiction, and the alternate history aspect was one of my favorite parts of the book. The timeline diverges at the 1940 Republican convention: instead of Wendell Wilkie being nominated in the fifth ballot, the convention stays deadlocked until after midnight, when Charles Lindbergh (in the novel as in real life, an isolationist anti-Semite) makes a dramatic entrance and wins the nomination by acclimation. He carries out a maverick campaign, flying to states throughout the country and driving home a single-issue campaign theme: "Vote for Lindbergh or vote for the war." He defeats FDR, then withdraws American support for the British, signs a treaty with the Germans and Japanese recognizing their respective rights to Europe and the Pacific (in the latter case protecting existing US island possessions), and starts rolling back New Deal programs and replacing them with proto-fascist anti-Jewish policies.

It's all rather nightmarish, and quite gripping. I think we all like to tell ourselves "It couldn't happen here" when we hear about genocides, pogroms, and martial law. Still, in any society there will be at least a small number of people who support hateful actions like those. We're fortunate in the US to have a government that (for all its faults) loudly preaches the religion of tolerance, and surely that helps keep our worst tendencies in check. But what if we suddenly woke up under a government that just as loudly proclaimed the necessity of separating undesirable elements? For our own protection, you understand?

That led to the other creepy aspect of the story. All the action takes place from about 1939-1942, narrated from some point past that (likely the late 1960s or early 1970s). Yet, I couldn't help continually thinking back to our own time. So much of that book's actions seemed to echo my own concerns from the time when it was published in 2004: a showy President who wore plainspun unsophistication as armor and spurned the advice of "intellectuals" and "experts"; a widespread cultural trend towards demonizing a subset of American citizens; the abrogation of civil liberties in the name of national emergency.

I think that's more me than Roth, though. The biggest difference is that Lindbergh was trying to keep America out of a war, while Bush was trying to push us into one. (Although, in the most chilling climax of the story, Acting President Wheeler comes within days of declaring war on Canada, in effect aligning America with the Axis powers.) Bush, for all his faults, never supported the xenophobia directed against Arab citizens, even though parts of the country were certainly ripe for such support. And the first term Bush presidency tackled civil liberties incrementally, not overreaching in one swoop like Wheeler does in the novel.

So, I think it would be a mistake to read this book as a kind of retro-historical-allegory of the first G W Bush term. Instead, it's a book that taps into a persistent concern that we should always have as a country: never getting too self-assured in our righteousness, and remaining aware that the price of liberty is constant vigilance. When we slip (as happens fictionally in the book, and as happened in the real world a decade ago), all of our traditions do virtually nothing to protect us. It's our actions now that will determine our future, not the two hundred plus years of democratic history.

As fascinating as all this is, again, it really isn't the main thrust of the book. Roth creates this rich background, then sets about his main concern, looking at how this stressful situation affects a single family, the Roth family, third-generation Jews living in a Newark suburb. The father and mother have created a safe mental space for their children, free from the persecution that they encountered in their own childhoods. That safety begins unraveling, even in small ways. The election of an anti-Semite emboldens ordinary citizens to disparage them during a trip to Washington, D.C., when otherwise they might have remained quiet (still racist, but only internally so). The Lindbergh administration starts a new program to disperse urban Jewish youth into the countryside, and the eldest son leaves; when he comes back, he is not only full of enthusiasm for the farm life, but full of disparagement for his own family, who he now derides as "You Jews."

That splintering of community is one of the most painful aspects of this book. Most of the Jewish people remain faithful to FDR and his liberal policies, but a voluble minority align themselves with Lindbergh. They denounce intervening in Hitler's policies, promote the breakup and dispersal of Jewish communities, and "kosher" Lindbergh to absolve middle-American Christians to vote for him with a clean conscience. This splintering tears apart families (well, the family we care about, the Roth family), and that small tragedy is the emotional centerpiece of the novel.

I'm not sure if Roth always write about Jewish people - but every one of his novels that I've read has featured them as the main characters. Earlier in this post I'd mentioned that Roth has written the Great American Novel. It might seem like it's hard to write the Great American Novel if your characters belong to a minority within America. I don't think that's true. This might sound a little cheesy, but "the outsider who lives among us" can see the majority more clearly than the majority themselves can. TPAA primarily focuses on the predominantly Jewish community around Newark, but when its gaze does expand elsewhere (to the Capital, to the heartland, to the broken country of West Virginia), it sees with a directness and clarity that I don't think you would get from someone who had grown up in that environment among those people. At the same time, the characters are so steeped in American culture that they can navigate all of its social situations and understand what's happening around them.

Back to the alternate history:


One interesting aspect is how resilient Roth makes the timeline. Often, in alternate histories, you get small changes in the past that magnify into bigger and bigger changes the farther you get into the future. That could easily have happened in this book; I'm sure many other people have written other books where America's neutrality in WW2 leads to Axis domination over the world, or a world without Communism, or a world filled with Communists, or some other grand realignment. Instead, Roth gently sets the timeline back on track after just a few years' detour.

That isn't clear from the beginning. However, perhaps about two-thirds through the book, when Walter Winchell is assassinated, Roth makes the off-hand comment that this was the first time a candidate for the Presidency had been assassinated, and the next wouldn't come until Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 after winning the California primary. Immediately, the "future" starts to shift back into view. Germany can't have won (or at least not won a total war), or else there wouldn't have even been an election in 1968. Furthermore, if Bobby was running in 1968, it seems likely that Jack had won in 1960. So, just how do we get past Lindbergh?

The chaotic passage near the end of the book describes the madness that unfolds after the Winchell assassination late in 1942. Lindbergh mysteriously disappears when returning from one of his many impromptu flights out to the heartland. Vice-President Wheeler assumes power, and with astonishing swiftness sets a series of plots into motion. He blames the British and then the Canadians for Lindbergh's disappearance; fans the flames of anti-Semitic fury that Winchell had gleefully provoked, which in turn spurs pogroms throughout the Midwest; sends the National Guard in amongst the chaos to shoot and kill Jewish civilians; and then declares a state of national emergency, imposes martial law, imprisons his political opponents, and puts the country on a war footing... for war against undesirable elements within, and against Canada from without.

At this point, despite the promised glimpse of RFK, the situation seems utterly bleak. The day is saved when Anne Lindbergh, the wife and possible widow of the President, escapes from her confinement in Walter Reed's psychiatric ward, connects with sympathetic elements who give her access to a radio broadcast tower, and urges the armed forces and National Guard to reverse their actions, release the politicians they hold captive, remove Wheeler from office, and install the Secretary of State as the new acting President until elections can be held in November. They follow her lead, Wheeler is disgraced, and the day is saved. A "National Unity" ticket of FDR and Fiorello LaGuardia - and, seriously, how SWEET would that have been?! - sweeps the election.

After that, events unfurl as you would expect, just about one year later. Instead of Pearl Harbor occurring in December 1941, it happens in December 1942; the US declares war on Japan, then the Axis declares war on the US, and the war is truly joined. We don't get many details of the war - I imagine that it would be even harder than the real one, if Britain hadn't had access to our armaments and we hadn't ramped up war production - but it seems to follow more or less on track. Germany surrenders in 1945, a few weeks after FDR dies in office.

It is fun to imagine just what happened next. I kind of think that by then everything was back on track. In the real world, Roosevelt replaced the liberal and divisive Henry Wallace as the VP with the centrist and pragmatic Harry Truman; it seems likely that in the alternate world, he would have replaced the liberal and controversial (though totally awesome) LaGuardia with Truman. So the bomb would still have fallen on Japan, and the war would end as it did.


Much as I enjoy Roth, his books are too weighty for me to devour with the same glee that I devote to, say, Terry Pratchett or Christopher Moore. I think that one of his books every few years should be just about right. It feels like it takes that long for me to mentally process everything in the last Roth novel I read.

Not that I can say everything is a slam-dunk. Earlier this year, I tried reading "Portnoy's Complaint," which might be the most famous book Roth has written (even more so than American Pastoral). Well... I usually don't think of myself as a prude, but that subject matter combined with that talented of a writer combined to make the most singularly uncomfortable reading experience of the past few years. I squirmed my way through about two dozen pages before setting it aside forever.

That said, I would like to go back and read some early Roth next - so far, everything I've read from him has come from the last two decades. He's been writing since the 1950's, and it would be nice to read through some of his stuff in sequence - say, the Zuckerman books. We'll see what the future brings!

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