In the Connecticut woods these days, there is Roth and there is Death: Death versus Roth; Roth versus Death. He has managed to clear his life of everything that is not writing; uninterrupted, he now spends hours and hours at work. How much longer can he keep this up? Every novel might be his last. Death and Roth, Roth and Death. That’s what’s happening up in Connecticut. Also: the New York Times.
Roth gets the Times, and it drives him nuts. Owned by proper German Jews and written by Philistines, the Times is the quintessence of everything he loathes. In the seventies, he did battle with its daily book critic, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, disdaining his intelligence, referring to “the ‘thoughts’ of a Lehmann-Haupt,” and even, at one point, publicly suggesting in all seriousness that the Times could easily replace him by holding a contest among qualified college seniors. Lehmann-Haupt was eventually released from book reviewing and made into the Times’ head obituary writer, and Michiko Kakutani took over the most prominent daily reviewing spot at the paper. She has hardly been better to Roth, however; in 1995 she panned Sabbath’s Theater, his greatest novel.
And as it happens, for Roth in Connecticut, Death and the Times are inextricably linked. The Times is the record-keeper of death. In Sabbath’s Theater, Mickey Sabbath, contemplating suicide, composes his own obituary. “Morris Sabbath, Puppeteer, 64, Dies.” After a lengthy, deadpan description of his crazy life, the final section lists his surviving relatives and then, out of nowhere, concludes, “Mr. Sabbath did nothing for Israel.” And what, in all likelihood, awaits Roth in the Times when Death has finally had with him its inexorable way? An obituary from Christopher Lehmann-Haupt.
“Famously rageful Roth is weirdly unenraged by the fascist takeover of America.”
Yet Roth’s epic struggle with the Times is also his struggle with contemporaneity, and it is what makes him the most compelling of living writers. He has performed a hollowing-out of all the accoutrements the individual self gathers in this world—children (none), wives (divorced), parents (dead)—so that he could instead contain multitudes. He has become a novelist whose every book is like a dispatch from the deepest recesses of the national mind. He devoted a good portion of the opening of his last major novel, The Human Stain, to excoriating the “enormous piety binge” surrounding the Clinton impeachment. Before that, American Pastoral was a withering attack on the excesses of the sixties. Even Sabbath, in the final scene of that monstrous book, is clothed in nothing but an American flag and a GOD BLESS AMERICA yarmulke when he is caught urinating (affectionately, we are assured) over his lover’s grave by two policemen. At a time when the business of book publishing has become a kind of rookie league at which pro scouts, from the movies, might occasionally drop in, Roth has managed to maintain his sense of a novelist’s public role. “Professional competition with death” is how Roth’s alter ego Zuckerman defines writing. It is also, if you’re Roth, professional competition with the New York Times.
It is this public role, and Roth’s acceptance of it, that makes The Plot Against America such a puzzling book. It is a counter-historical novel. What if Charles Lindbergh had given his infamous Des Moines speech, in which he blamed the Jews for pulling the U.S. into the European war, in 1940 instead of 1941? He might have been nominated for the presidency instead of Wendell Willkie. With a folksy campaign consisting of solo flights to all the 48 states, and a platform that repeatedly promised to keep the country out of war, he just might have beaten the stiff, patrician, intellectual FDR. And then he might, given his beliefs, have embarked on a programmatic campaign to forcibly relocate and deracinate the American Jewish population.
A number of novels in recent years have fictionalized or fabulized the Holocaust. Roth is up to something different; he is wondering what his own life might have been like if history, which is so fragile, had moved in a different direction. The novel is framed as a memoir of his boyhood in Newark. “Fear presides over these memories,” he begins, “a perpetual fear.” He then recounts the crumbling of his reasonably pleasant New Jersey life in the wake of the Lindbergh ascendancy: the gradual inducements for Jews to be less Jewish; the erosion of resistance and cohesiveness within the Jewish community; the FBI surveillance. Some Jews move to Canada; others, like the Roths, believe that they are Americans and that the Constitution will protect them.