Some great books you only need to read once and then put back on the shelf and try to forget. George Orwell’s “1984” is a prime example. Not too many people would want to dive back into that nightmare again, all the more so since the real 1984 passed long ago and our world looks much better, thank God, than it did in the book. And how comforting to see that writers don’t necessarily have the gift of prophecy.
But suddenly, as swastikas pop up all over the United States, your hand is drawn to your collection of dystopian, apocalyptic literature and pulls out “The Plot Against America,” Philip Roth’s incisive political novel – and to my mind his best book.
You also want to furiously scrape off the swastika-adorned U.S. postage stamp that’s stuck on the cover, until you remember (the book was published in 2004) that the stamp isn’t really glued on. The swastika is part of the cover, just as the anti-Semitic sentiments in the book are part of the story and an inseparable part of the American reality.
This is an alternative history; that is, a novel based on true past events that takes a small leap into the realm of “What if”? It completely alters the course of events and presents a plausible, terrifying and fascinating alternate reality, depending on the writer’s brilliance – something that’s in very plentiful supply in “The Plot against America.”
Imagine if you will, as Roth did, that Franklin Roosevelt didn’t beat Wendell Willkie in the 1940 presidential election but instead was trounced by Charles Lindbergh. Why? Because Lindbergh was a cultural icon, the most acclaimed pilot in the world, a super-celebrity. Because he was younger and handsomer than his opponent, who was confined to a wheelchair. Because he proclaimed “America First” and promised peace, security and economic prosperity rather than plunging into a terrible war against Nazi Germany.
Because he convinced voters that he alone knew how to do business with Adolf Hitler, whom he greatly admired. And because all dreams were possible if, as the thinking went, America protected its most precious asset, its European bloodline. How to do this? By defending America against the enemy – the Jews, of course.
Life of a salesman
The actual Lindbergh did think and write such things. After the Nazis came to power, he considered moving to Germany. He left the United States for a few years after his baby son was kidnapped and murdered. Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect, offered to build him any house he wanted in Berlin.
Lindbergh really did believe that the Germans had a problem with those Jews. The facts will take you that far. Then the reader has to accept the fictional premise that Lindbergh ran against Roosevelt and won. Somehow, in November 2016, that’s not so hard to do.
And then we follow, entranced, the 9-year-old Philip Roth – i.e., the fictional alter ego based on the alternative memories of the writer himself. He’s the son of a Jewish family fighting for its place in the lower middle class, trying to get by on the salesman father’s salary.
The father is an immigrant, in love with the American dream and democracy, a dream to which he holds fast and wields as a shield against all the hatred outside. For what can protect him in this world of wealthy and established goyim who view him with hostility and derision? Only this lofty idea.
From the young boy’s point of view, this idea has immediate consequences. Lindbergh’s election raises some tough questions. Should they buy a house in a nicer neighborhood full of goyim? Should he go to “their” school? Will his father really get the promotion he’s been promised, his ticket to the American dream, or will his Jewishness be used against him?
The pace of events keeps accelerating, as if time itself has sped up, with each plot twist followed by another that’s even harsher and scarier – on both the national and family level. If you haven’t read the book, I won’t give too much of the plot away, except to say that, of course, the verbal threat evolves into definite physical danger.
The path to barbarism
To me, that’s not the main thing here. It’s not the budding dictatorship, the media suppression, the killing of a journalist, the mass arrests or the mob assaults. Roth’s great wisdom and brilliant writing will convince even the last skeptic just how fragile the cloak of democracy and cultural enlightenment is that covers the seething muck of our worst impulses. As soon as a “leader” appears on the scene, all the dams give way so that even he’ll try to push back against the resultant barbarism.
And it hurts to have to understand the book’s most intriguing character – Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, a cultural leader who becomes an eager collaborator with the new regime; he enters Roth’s family by marrying the boy’s aunt. It hurts to think about the delight expressed by so many Israelis at Donald Trump’s election, and about the possible consequences should that thin protective shell suddenly crack.
You should also read the book with the frightening thought that the Jews in the story are only a stand-in for all “others.” In the period in which the book is set, Japanese-Americans were being held in internment camps. All those seen as a threatening “other” could certainly share the same fate once the dams give way.
The ending? Comforting, of course. President Lindbergh is just a transitory episode. Order will be restored. Anyone reading the book for the first time will experience the necessary catharsis.
Anyone reading it again will come away with the profound pessimism that Roth shares with Albert Camus at the end of “The Plague.” This is the recognition that we lack the power to extinguish the evil that starts with “America First” or in finding an “other” to blame for every social ill, whether in the imaginary age of Lindbergh or in the current United States. Or right here in Israel.
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