I don’t know how it was received in 2004, but in 2020 Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America reads like The Great American Novel of Our Times—a book written for our present moment. It tells the tale of an American celebrity politician, Charles A. Lindbergh, who consorts with the Nazi government in the run up to World War II to keep America out of it. With the pacifist agenda of staying out of the war, Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt in the 1940 election, and deals with American Jews in his own way—installing government programs designed to “assist” them to “assimilate” into the broader American society.
At the center of the story is the Roth family, and the narrator-protagonist is young Philip. After Lindbergh is elected, the family takes a trip to Washington, DC to see the monuments, and hears half-hushed comments from strangers about the “loudmouth Jew” father who likes Roosevelt and can’t stop saying so, openly to his children in what’s now decidedly Lindbergh country. After that the older teenage brother, Sandy, a gifted artist, is “invited” by a government program to spend a summer working on a farm in Kentucky. He returns with tales of eating pork, harvesting the tobacco crop, loving all of it and thinking Lindbergh is the answer. Alvin, the even-older cousin who lives with the Roths after losing his own parents, doesn’t trust anything about Lindbergh; he travels to Canada and signs up to fight Hitler and the Nazis in the European theater. Young Philip isn’t sure what to think, given that his father is vehemently opposed to Lindbergh, seeing him as a Nazi collaborator who has it in for America’s Jews.
Into the family circle comes one Rabbi Bengelsdorf, an official in the Lindbergh administration who helped Lindbergh get elected by “koshering Lindbergh to the goyim,” as Alvin had put it, preaching in the largest temples about his confidence in the candidate’s bona fides toward America’s Jews. Philip’s aunt—his mother’s sister—now works for and eventually marries the much older Bengelsdorf, all of which adds to the many cross-currents that are confusing young Philip and tearing the family apart.
"A rabbi was a rabbi, but Alvin meanwhile was [battling] Hitler, and in my own house—where I was supposed to wear anything except my good clothes—I had to put on my one tie and my one jacket to impress the very rabbi who helped to elect the president whose friend was Hitler."
In short order, Lindbergh’s government assists in the rejuvenation of the German-American Bund, a formerly pro-Nazi organization now trimmed out as an anti-Communist movement, “as anti-Semitic as before, openly equating Bolshevism with Judaism in propaganda handouts and harping on the number of ‘prowar Jews’” in a rally that fills Madison Square Garden, featuring lapel buttons reading “KEEP AMERICA OUT OF THE JEWISH WAR”.
All of which leads, eventually, to a government-sanctioned forced-relocation of American Jews across the land. As Walter Winchell, the muckraking lone voice in the American media’s treatment of the Lindbergh administration, has been saying all along:
"Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. Let’s go to press! Flash! To the glee of rat-faced Joe Goebbels and his boss, the Berlin Butcher, the targeting of America’s Jews by the Lindbergh fascists is officially under way. The phony moniker for phase one of organized Jewish persecution in the land of the free is ‘Homestead 42’. . . . Two hundred and twenty-five Jewish families have already been told to vacate the cities of America’s northeast in order to be shipped thousands of miles from family and friends. This first shipment has been kept strategically small in order to escape national attention. Why? Because it marks the beginning of the end for the four and a half million American citizens of Jewish descent. The Jews will be scattered far and wide to wherever Hitlerite America Firsters flourish."
It doesn’t stop there. The plot thickens, hordes of hooligans appear everywhere, a few patriots here and there. A long, rambling account is given by our young narrator, Philip, of what he did and thought and dreamed to cloud out the seemingly endless nightmare he was living through.
Positioned at the end of the novel is a nearly thirty-page Postscript, which helpfully separates fact from fiction, with true accounts of all the primary historic players, and shorter notes on other real persons who figure in the narrative.
Finally, a request. I’ve dipped into Roth’s catalogue only a few times. The first was American Pastoral, which on one level is a baseball book and on another his best work, according to some. I didn’t get through it, for whatever reason. Later, I did enjoy both Everyman and The Ghost Writer, and the experience of reading The Plot Against America has me looking for another in the near future. Any recommendations out there? Just hit the Comment button (or write me an email) and let me know.
This is the second novel, after the excellent Hold Still, from a young writer who lives and teaches writing in New York. The protagonist, Elizabeth, is also a young writer, as well as a high-school teacher and grad student, living in the boroughs. Steger Strong knows contemporary New York as well as anybody writing fiction today, and getting one’s fix without a scary flight in a pandemic is worth the price of admission. But the sights you’ll see won’t be those you’d pick on vacation.
Elizabeth is a mother with two very young girls, three or four teaching jobs, and a husband who gave up working for the big bucks after Lehman Brothers imploded and the markets crashed. He now installs cabinets and other renovations for people with homes like he (and his family) will never live in after making that life-changing career choice. But it was a decision they both supported, and they love each other and their kids, all of which is a good thing because they have landed in bankruptcy court, buried in debt as the book opens.
As Elizabeth learns to live without money or credit cards, she looks back on her relationship with Sasha. They had been great friends in their early-twenties, lounging around the boroughs’ bars, Sasha entertaining the men she attracted while Elizabeth read novels stashed in her purse. Elizabeth sees Sasha in such attractive terms, I wondered if there had been more to their relationship, or would be.
After the bankruptcy, Elizabeth’s parents invite her to bring the babies to Long Island for a stay while her husband does a job and school is out. “I don’t want to say yes and know that it won’t go well,” she tells us as she mulls it over.
"My parents came from nothing and worked hard for their money, which also meant they thought anyone who was not also successful was not successful because they did not work hard enough. They loved us, tracked every grade and track meet . . . . Food was good but not-thin was disgusting. Flaws were fine but not ever when others might see."
* * *
"I was depressed is a clear, clean thing that I can say that might explain things. That my dad probably was too was not ever discussed. My whole life, I’d watched as he got sad and quiet and my mom yelled at him and he left the room and did not talk again for days. . . . [I would] beg him later—when she yelled again and he walked out of the house, standing in the backyard, locking himself in the garage, pulling the car over so he could get out and walk along the highway—not to leave."
* * *
"We spend a week not really talking."
Elizabeth lives her life with all this negative patrimony, and with the weight of the choices she and her husband have made bearing down on them.
For the most part, Elizabeth lives her professional life far better than her private one. Her work with high school students from poor backgrounds is rendered in quiet tones and occasional glimpses of a teacher worth her salt. She cares far more for her students, and her own babies, than herself. But she has great difficulty concentrating on her work with high schoolers, with the weight of her family’s circumstances bearing down on her. She buys books she can’t afford, and ducks out on her duties when the students don’t need her and nobody will notice.
The novel is full of spot-on descriptions, not only of what it feels like to be this Elizabeth, but what it feels like to be her parents, and Sasha, and others around her. The narrative arc is a little thin, but the point the novel makes is there at the end. In the main, this is a story of how hard it can be for one generation to follow another into a life that is anything like comparable financially. Elizabeth’s parents are part of a post-war generation that encountered a world of opportunity; their adult children can face a very different world indeed. All of them overlook all this at their peril.
The next review is not yet written. But fifty pages into Self Portrait with Russian Piano by Wolf Wondratschek, I thought I'd preview a book I'll feature next month, which has the look of a real winner. Shades of Julian Barnes’s wonderful The Noise of Time, except the Russian at its center lives, like so many, in Vienna; and unlike Shostakovich, this entirely fictional protagonist here is not a composer but a concert pianist, looking back on his long career and life. Ethan Hawke, fresh off performing the audio recording of Kerouac’s Big Sur and writing in last week’s New York Times Book Review, says its author, Wolf Wondratschek, “has matured in ways Kerouac never did. This novel is at once egoless, sly, profound, funny, authentic and utterly mysterious—without ever seeming to break a sweat.”
It’s a short novel, not to be gobbled up but savored. If you’re in, click on Comment below (or write me at MatthewGeyerWriter@gmail.com) and we can compare notes before or after I post my next batch of reviews. Cheers.