The Short Version: Charles Lindbergh – aviator, isolationist, anti-Semite – unexpectedly wins the 1940 Republican nomination for President and glides smoothly into office that November. As this alternate history plays out, leading America closer and closer to a fascist outpost of Hitler’s Berlin, a young Philip Roth comes of age in Newark – and sees the world he thought he knew torn to pieces around him.
The Review: I love the concept of alternate histories. I don’t particularly want to read the more popular-lit alt histories, with the South winning the war or the Germans winning WWII, etc etc – but I like the academic exercise provided by the concept. So the idea of Philip Roth, a novelist of some renown (who’ve I’ve, somewhat embarrassingly, only had a fleeting encounter with – I read The Ghost Writer on a train from Boston in college and remember… none of it), tackling such a concept felt like it might be more than just a potboiler. Indeed, he takes on an interesting twist, too: instead of just saying that the Germans won or the South won and going from there, he picks a smaller moment of “what if?” and begins to tease it out from there. The Republicans wanted Lindbergh to run – so what if he had?
Unfortunately, the novel can’t quite decide what it wants to be. Roth focuses, for better or worse, on a fictionalized young version of himself: growing up Jewish in Newark, with an older brother and a cousin and a stamp collection. This is a fine lens through which to view trying times – the boy comes of age in the midst of turmoil, it’s a smart and inevitably interesting choice. But the thing is, Roth spends most of the novel in a super-tight-focus on the Roths in Newark. Oh, yes, “their experience is that of the Jewish everyman” you might argue – but I think my issue with this novel is that I didn’t want to see the everyman. I wanted to see the whole country grappling with the massive changes that would be inevitably a part of a Lindbergh presidency. Instead, we saw the Roths – and while their grappling was interesting to a point, it also had an interesting delimiter: Judaism.
Obviously any book about a Lindbergh / fascist presidency will be dealing, heavily, with the Jews – and I would expect no less from Roth, of all writers (that’s what I remember from The Ghost Writer: Zuckerman was Jewish). But so much of the novel felt like a strange, reactionary paranoia to… nothing much at all. And as I think about it, I wonder if this was in fact Roth’s intention.
Written in 2004 as it was, there are the obvious parallels to the Bush years that I cannot be the first to imagine: folks talking about moving to Canada, a folksy President who gets us into bed with awkward bedfellows in order to “preserve peace”, etc. But I’ve heard Roth say that he didn’t intend them and I think those parallels are reality imposing itself on the novel with some force – and it doesn’t exactly belong. Instead, it’s the larger and more lasting fear of “it can’t happen here” suddenly happening here – a fear we, as Americans, have sustained since… well, certainly throughout the 20th Century and I’ll bet a better historian than I could provide examples going even further back. But the point is that Roth means us to not watch the macro explosion of a changed reality but instead to examine the inner fears that can drive individuals mad. Why does Alvin go off to fight? Is it, in fact, because Roth pere in a sense drives him to it, with his savage anti-Lindbergh sentiments? Does Sandy veer towards indoctrination simply because his parents don’t want him to? These are interesting and deep questions – questions that could be examined through a different storyline, but questions that here reflect issues of the world at large as well as that of the family unit.
And therein, I think, lies my problem with the book. Take, for example, the second-to-last chapter. Let’s disregard the way that Roth chickens out on his premise for the novel and basically reestablishes the correct flow of history (neglecting the Bradburyian prime rule of time travel, namely that if you change something, everything else must then be changed and while the Doctor might tell you that there are fixed points that snap back or find a way (hey scientist-lady from “The Waters of Mars”), it wouldn’t all slip perfectly back into the time stream as it does for Roth’s magic pen) and let us just focus simply on the narrative. There are, by the way, SPOILERS happening.
The second-to-last chapter details – in riveting, day by day fashion – what happens after the news starts to leak about what Lindbergh has actually been up to. The riots increase, Winchell is shot, Mayor La Guardia announces he’s running for President, and everything starts to go to hell. Lindbergh takes off to assuage the populace and… disappears. His plane, everything – poof. His crazy VP takes over and immediately cracks the whip and things get really scary for a few days until the heroic First Lady swoops in to save the day. The government impeaches the Acting President, there’s a special election in the fall, FDR comes back, Pearl Harbor happens only a year late, and bada-boom the world is back on track.
It’s also the most exciting part of the book. At the beginning, as we watched Lindbergh get the nomination and barnstorm across the country, there was a perverse fascination with hearing the nearly-third-person stories – it was gripping reading. Similarly, all this political stuff gets quite exciting! But then there’s a whole ‘nother chapter, this time replaying those crazy days from inside young Philip’s head… and it feels completely unnecessary. It’s confusing (because he is confused), it is boring, and it ends the novel on an odd button where (had the novel ended with that moment of FDR’s re-election) we might’ve otherwise had modest closure. Still annoying in its wussing out, but at least a nice ending. Instead, like so many movies and plays these days, it just rambles on a bit longer – and the whole book suffers because of it.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I really wish I could rate this higher and there are parts of the book that I genuinely found thrilling. And the questions raised are fantastic – I can’t wait to see how the discussion trends during my BookClub’s next meeting. But there are also parts that are so slow, so overbearing, so boring… Perhaps I am just not the target audience for a Philip Roth novel. Perhaps I am too young to appreciate. Perhaps it’s just not my jam – but for everything good in this book, there was something I found just sort of blah. And, again, the cop-out ending is just that: a cop-out. I expect (nay, demand) more from authors of Mr. Roth’s stature. But you can’t win them all, I suppose.