What If?

Photo by Nancy Crampton

IN FRANZ KAFKA’S NOVEL Amerika, the Statue of Liberty looms majestically over New York Harbor just as it does today. Only with one small, utterly mischievous difference: With her powerful, upraised arm, Lady Liberty brandishes not a torch but a sword. That provocative sense of play pervades Philip Roth’s latest novel, The Plot Against America.

It is 1940 in Newark, New Jersey, a town deeply familiar to Roth’s readers, and everything is as it should be. The Roths (this is a kind of pseudo-, through-the-looking-glass memoir) — 7-year-old Philip, 12-year-old brother Sandy, mother Bess and insurance agent dad Herman — are secular Jews who feel every bit as American as they do Jewish. “Nobody in the neighborhood had a beard or dressed in the antiquated Old World style or wore a skullcap either outdoors or in the houses I routinely floated through with my boyhood friends,” writes Philip, looking back fondly on his childhood years. And when, every couple of months, “a stranger who did wear a beard” turns up on the doorstep asking for funds for a Jewish national homeland in Palestine, he is treated almost with pity: What is “Palestine” to a happy Jewish-American boy in 1940 who can imagine living in no other country than the one to whose flag he joyfully pledges allegiance every morning in school?

Nothing, basically. But then “the Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed.”

Lindbergh was Charles Lindbergh, the great American aviator and first man to fly nonstop across the Atlantic who became a hero all over the world. But Lindbergh later became an isolationist and a Nazi sympathizer who received an honorary medal from Hermann Göring. In The Plot Against America, he accepts the nomination of the Republican Party in 1940, runs against President Roosevelt, and wins in a landslide on an anti-war platform. The Roths, along with all the other Jewish families in their neighborhood, are first horrified, then terrified.

One of the things this novel does brilliantly is to make an anti-war, peace-first policy appear thoroughly sinister. President Lindbergh, who is forever flying his famous two-engine Lockheed Interceptor solo across the country to address the citizenry, boasts of how safe the skies have become because America has not entered the war. But after a while, even those clear blue skies, devoid of enemy aircraft, seem permeated with a moral blankness indistinguishable from evil. As Graham Greene said, one has to take sides “if one is to remain human.”


FOR A “WHAT IF?” NOVEL with a sensational, pulp-fiction premise, The Plot Against America is awfully tasteful — maybe too tasteful. There’s no real bang, just a prolonged series of terrified whimpers and sporadic explosions. But the lack of sensationalism also makes the book convincing. Told from the viewpoint of Roth’s 7-year-old self, the story focuses largely on mundanities and childhood apprehensions and traumas. This is a 7-year-old’s world — which happens also to be an incipiently fascist and anti-Semitic world.

Under cover of government programs with cozy names like “Just Folks” and “Good Neighbors,” all part of the Office of American Absorption (OAA), the Lindbergh regime begins to relocate Jewish families in order to integrate them. Philip’s older brother, Sandy, a talented artist, is sent off to work on a farm in Kentucky for the summer. He loves it (especially the bacon) — and returns to Newark convinced that his family, and particularly his father, suffer from a paranoid Jewish ghetto mentality. He is supported in this conviction by Newark’s celebrity rabbi, Lionel Bengelsdorf, a multilingual windbag who comes out as Lindbergh’s biggest supporter in the Jewish community, as well as Sandy’s own aunt, who marries the rabbi and has Sandy made a spokesman for the OAA. As far as Herman is concerned, it’s all classic divide-and-conquer stuff, a way of enticing Jews into the American heartland before rounding them up in camps and murdering them.

Roth denies that his portrait of an imaginary 1940s America sliding into fascism is supposed to be an oblique commentary on current events, but it’s going to be taken that way. Whether this is fair, or even logical (Bush may share with Lindbergh a taciturn disposition and an obsession with “security,” but he’s overturned fascist regimes, not coddled them), will depend on the judgment of individual readers. But there is no doubt that Roth touches a nerve, and that he has anticipated his critics.

Here is Rabbi Bengelsdorf at the Roths’ dinner table, furiously defending President Lindbergh against charges of anti-Semitism and fascism in the period before the pogroms break out (which they do):

“Where is the fascist statism? Where is the fascist thuggery? Where are the Nazi Brown Shirts and the secret police? When have you observed a single manifestation of fascist anti-Semitism emanating from our government?”

And here is David Gelernter, painter, critic and computer expert (and victim of the Unabomber), furiously defending President Bush, in a recent issue of The Weekly Standard, against charges that he is bringing fascism to America:

“Has the administration transformed every American news source into a propaganda machine? Demanded that Jews (or anyone) be fired? That Jewish (or any other kind of) shops, businesses, professionals be boycotted? Propaganda posters everywhere? Students thrown out of schools? . . .”

Eerie, isn’t it?


THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA’s real strength, though, lies in its portrait of a family on the verge of disintegration and a nation in the grip of hysteria. The most moving parts of the book are about Bess and Herman, salt-of-the-earth types who battle valiantly to keep the family together as everything is going to pieces — even as they themselves are going to pieces. Near the end of the book, Roth gives each parent a great scene, a final bow on the stage of his imaginary fascist Amerika. (They are, after all, his own parents.)

Both involve Seldon, an intellectual, fatally sissy contemporary of Philip’s, who has been dispatched with his mother to live in Kentucky as part of the OAA relocation program. When Seldon’s mother fails to return from work one night, a panicked Seldon places a collect call to the only people he knows who might help him: the Roths in Newark, New Jersey. Mrs. Roth calms him down by getting him to eat a meal (“Listen to me, Seldon. Concentrate. Make yourself some toast, with the cereal. And use the butter. Butter it. And pour yourself a big glass of milk.”). Then, once it becomes apparent that Seldon’s mother will never be coming home — she’s been killed in a pogrom — Mr. Roth sets out in his car on a 1,500-mile cross-country trip through terrifying pro-Lindbergh goyim America to fetch him. He can’t help himself (“My father was a rescuer and orphans were his specialty”), and the trip nearly kills him.

But he survives and so, oddly, does America, despite the plot against it. Not only does this book have a surprisingly upbeat ending, it would also make a great movie. What could be more American than that?

THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA | By PHILIP ROTH | Houghton Mifflin 391 pages | $26 hardcover


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >