His Jewish Problem

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.

The narrative proceeds slowly. Roth has become a very essayistic writer, often repetitive, always exhaustive. The coiled concision of his early work is a thing of the past. In The Plot Against America, he leaves no shred of meaning unexamined, so that even the weirdest sentences in this book have an unhurried rhythm. Playing with the rambunctious new downstairs neighbor, little Philip is “derailed for the moment thinking that, on top of Mayor La Guardia’s being under arrest and President Roosevelt’s being under arrest and even Rabbi Bengelsdorf’s being under arrest, the new boy downstairs wasn’t going to be any more of a picnic than the one before him had been.” Famously rageful Roth is weirdly unenraged by the fascist takeover of America. Everything one is used to in a Roth book is here, but upside down. In The Ghost Writer, the young Nathan Zuckerman has the following conversation with his mother, after Zuckerman fails to reply to a letter from Newark’s Judge Wapter in which the judge compares one of his early stories to the works of Julius Streicher and Joseph Goebbels:

[Mrs. Zuckerman:] “He only meant that what happened to the Jews—”

“In Europe—not in Newark! We are not the wretched of Belsen! We were not the victims of that crime!”

“But we could be—in their place we would be. Nathan, violence is nothing new to Jews, you know that!”

“Ma, you want to see physical violence done to the Jews of Newark, go to the office of the plastic surgeon where the girls get their noses fixed.”

Now it is happening in Newark. And Judge Wapter appears, in inverted form, as the unctuous Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, Newark’s most esteemed religious leader and opportunist, who becomes the New Jersey head of Lindbergh’s Office of American Absorption, or OAA, the agency charged with assimilating the Jews. Roth’s brother, Sandy, is here—as ever, a nice boy too easily swayed by more charismatic personalities, in this case Bengelsdorf. But the words that come out of Sandy’s mouth are the ones usually reserved for the Roth character: “And when are we moving to Canada,” he asks his mother sarcastically, “because of your persecution complex?” The only thing congruent in this counter-universe with ours is the perfidy of the Times. Although founded and owned by Jews (“and highly esteemed for that reason by my father”), the paper piously supports the firing of broadcaster Walter Winchell for his fierce and ostentatiously Jewish anti-Lindbergh rhetoric.

Some of this novel also reads like straight Rothian political satire, which crops up in a sort of auxiliary but satisfying way. Roth has hated every Republican since Eisenhower, he has particular contempt for the Bushes, and he summons a nice retroactive antipathy to President Lindbergh. He is, throughout, the creature of his advisers, including Secretary of the Interior Henry Ford and Vice President Burton K. Wheeler. An attack dog, Wheeler is turned loose when the defeated but still-revered FDR makes an appearance to criticize Lindbergh’s invitation of Hitler’s foreign minister to a White House dinner. “Roosevelt,” Roth recalls, “was immediately attacked by Vice President Wheeler for ‘playing politics’ with a sitting president’s conduct of foreign affairs.” The name of the program meant to deracinate the Jews by sending them into the American provinces—“Just Folks”—has a perfectly terrifying modern innocuousness to it. And of course the First Couple must have been irresistible to Roth: W., the truant Texas Air National Guard pilot, is nothing but a farcical version of Lindbergh, the genuinely courageous stunt aviator, and Laura, the banal pro-war librarian, has got to be some kind of reference to Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the antiwar author of The Unicorn and Other Poems.

In the book’s eeriest episode, the Roths visit Washington, D.C., in some part to dispel their fears about the new Lindbergh administration. Instead, their fears are confirmed. After getting kicked out of their hotel, they see that everyone on the street is looking up at a fast plane, the Lockheed Interceptor, zooming over their heads. Their tour guide explains that every day around this time President Lindbergh likes to take a “little spin along the Potomac.” Roth reports:

We all watched along with Sandy, who was unable to conceal his enchantment with the very Interceptor that the president had flown to and from Iceland for his meeting with Hitler. The plane climbed steeply with tremendous force before disappearing into the sky. Down the street, the people out walking burst into applause, somebody shouted “Hurray for Lindy!” and then they continued on their way.

Writing this passage, had Roth already read in his Times that for the infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech to the troops, Bush had landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln in an S-3B Navy plane, sitting in the co-pilot’s seat, just like a grown-up? Bush is not, as some on the left would have it, much like Hitler, but he is, in Roth’s telling, an awful lot like Lindbergh.

But the heart of the book is the way it functions as perhaps the final chapter in Roth’s history of the Jews. Roth has, of course, always been Jewish—this has been the content and the force of his fiction. “I thought of myself,” he once wrote, “as something of an authority on ordinary Jewish life.” But in a sense Roth did not write Jewish—his language did not employ the Yiddish cadences of Henry Roth or Saul Bellow (or, for that matter, of the English-language translations of Isaac Bashevis Singer). For someone like Irving Howe—who was Roth’s intellectual nemesis in the way that Updike was his writerly one, strong where Roth was weak and weak where Roth was strong—Roth was cut off from the Jewish tradition, and had indeed come to represent, as Howe repeatedly wrote, “the point at which the underground springs of both Yiddish culture and the immigrant experience had finally dried up.”

Roth found this idea terribly offensive, but in fact it framed his dilemma. There really were important aspects of Jewish life in America that Roth could not abide. As the child of lower-middle-class parents, he loathed the invidious class distinctions made under the guise of organized religion (Goodbye, Columbus). He opposed the reflexive Israel-worship of many of his contemporaries, the idea that the Promised Land was anywhere other than Newark, or at least New York (Portnoy’s Complaint, Operation Shylock). But most of all, Roth rejected the claims that groups of people—what he has called “the tyranny of the we”—always tried to make on the individual born into those groups (the early story “Defender of the Faith,” and everything since).

In the background to all this, and as the final screaming endpoint to every argument, was the still-recent murder of the European Jews. Goodbye, Columbus appeared four years after Anne Frank’s diary became a hit on Broadway and four years before Hannah Arendt was pilloried for her report on the Eichmann trial (by many of the same people who would later attack Portnoy’s Complaint). In the decades to come, the American obsession with the Holocaust became something extremely strange, crossing over at times into a fantasy of persecution on these shores. Irving Howe was voicing a profound generational discomfort when he wrote, “But for an accident of geography, we might also now be bars of soap.” But this sentiment of identification and solidarity was very quickly, and possibly too easily, transformed into an entire industry—with movies and tour groups and even intellectual arbiters who decided what was (and is) a permissible attitude to take toward Auschwitz, and what is not. The template for the Times’ painfully trite mini-obituaries for all the 9/11 victims came from the tradition of Holocaust commemoration. The script for the fetishization, and politicization, of 9/11 was written by Leon Uris, not Karl Rove.

Throughout all this, Roth’s has been a voice of moral discernment. He has been appropriately serious about the catastrophe, as in the powerful description of the Ivan Demjanjuk trial in Operation Shylock: “The mystery isn’t that you, who had the time of your life at Treblinka, went on to become an amiable, hardworking American nobody, but that those who cleaned the corpses out for you, your accusers here, could ever pursue anything resembling the run-of-the-mill after what was done to them by the likes of you—that they can manage run-of-the-mill lives, that’s what’s unbelievable!” But he has also been playful: In what is perhaps his finest joke, in The Ghost Writer, Roth has a young Zuckerman begin to believe that he’s found Anne Frank, who has in fact survived the camps and is living incognito in the United States. She is beautiful. Zuckerman imagines courting her, and then imagines the conversation with the Zuckerman parents, who believe that his stories are bad for the Jews. “I met a marvelous young woman while I was up in New England… . We are going to be married.” “Married? But so fast? Nathan, is she Jewish?” “Yes, she is.” “But who is she?” “Anne Frank.” To be serious about the Holocaust is to understand it, first of all, as an actual historical event. The important underlying idea of Roth’s work, until now, is that anything can happen in America—that is the peculiar burden and hope of this country—and that it is the writer’s task to see clearly what exactly is happening and what it means.

The Plot Against America is being greeted in some quarters as Roth’s late-life capitulation on the question of whether it could—even whether it did—happen here. Ron Rosenbaum, in a giddy New York Observer column, suggested that the novel, with its Schindler-y overtones, was ripe for cinematization by Steven Spielberg—“thrilling, suspenseful, and profound” would be the movie that resulted, according to Rosenbaum.

“Many of the things Roth imagines happening to the Jews under Lindbergh have in fact happened in this country—to blacks.”

This is too easy, and too bad. The book is a tribute to Roth’s parents—it imagines that under conditions of extreme duress, they would have acted with courage and dignity. “My father was a rescuer,” Roth writes toward the end, “and orphans were his specialty.” It is the most tender Roth has been toward his parents—it is the most tender he has been toward anyone. But the novel’s historical argument is not a historical argument about the Jews. “It is not here, and not now, that the Jew is being slaughtered,” James Baldwin once wrote, “and he is never despised, here, as the Negro is.” That’s never felt truer than in this strange book, where so many of the things Roth imagines happening to the Jews under Lindbergh have in fact happened in this country—to blacks. Roth’s Holocaust novel becomes something like a Holocaust anti-novel, where the crucial point appears to be that what’s happening on the page has never actually happened in life.

So Spielberg really should make this into a movie. But he must literalize Roth’s metaphors: “1940” is actually 2001; “Lindbergh” is, of course, W.; the craven antiwar lies of the America Firsters are in fact the craven pro-war lies of the American Enterprise Institute; and “American Jews,” believers in the American Constitution and pursuers of the American Dream whose rights and protections are slowly stripped away by a hostile government and a mostly indifferent population, are, of course, Arab-Americans.

One thing Spielberg won’t be able to capture, and the one persistently counter-historical element of the book, is Roth’s subdued tone, so out of character for him. Everything else in the novel eventually returns to normal—so that the Lindbergh years in this universe become just a terrible detour. The only thing that’s different in the alternate future is Roth. He is frightened and overly cautious and needlessly loquacious. The narrator of this book is not the tirading monologuist of Portnoy’s Complaint or Operation Shylock or even The Human Stain. Had it happened here, we might have got this sentimental, essayistic champion of Jewish Newarkers. Instead we got the Roth who continues to reinvent himself, who has stared down death and read the New York Times and pondered the meaning of his freedom. And who still hasn’t done anything for Israel.

His Jewish Problem