Roth Unbound

Philip Roth.Photo: Jurgen Frank/Corbis Outline

Philip Roth launched his writing life with a series of novels fusing his sexual obsessions with meditations on the vagaries of assimilation. These early works took it more or less as a given that American Jews would be submerged into a bland post-ethnic destiny. But Roth’s recent protagonists have become more self-consciously Jewish and disenchanted with the American scene.

This logic reaches a fever pitch in The Plot Against America. The novel supplies a counterfactual account of World War II: America elects the anti-Semitic aviation hero Charles Lindbergh as president in 1940 and sits out a critical phase of the European war. Roth distills his alternate history through the story of his actual family, stranded in a heavily German-immigrant Newark drunk on what Roth calls “the intoxicant of anti-Semitism.”

Still, Roth’s message is not that the country was—or is—a couple of heartbeats away from a fascist takeover. There is a real plot against the United States, hatched in the highest reaches of Nazi officialdom. And without giving away too much of either that plot or Roth’s, those dark designs get thwarted. Nevertheless, it’s a costly victory; unlike other recent Roth works that fight their way through to some recovery of the promise of American life, this novel ends with a chapter called “Perpetual Fear.”

The Plot Against America, Houghton Mifflin, October.

Roth Unbound