The Taser's Edge

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth imagines a tweaked history of the United States.  In the other 1940, American aviator, celebrity, anti-Semite, and isolationist Charles Lindbergh wins the Republican nomination.  Campaigning on the argument that a vote for FDR is a vote for war, he wins the election handily.  After Lindbergh becomes president, the US signs a non-agression pact with Nazi Germany.  This book follows what this all means through the eyes of a Jewish family in Newark, and particularly through the eyes of a small boy in that family named Philip Roth.

I call it ‘tweaked history’ rather than ‘alternate history’ because the book, or at least the first 3/4 of it, is eerily plausible.  So plausible that it was actually difficult for me to  read at long stretches.  One of the most difficult sections is when the Roths take a family trip to see the sites of Washington, DC.

There they visit the Lincoln Memorial and hear anti-Semitic comments directed at them at its base, return to their hotel to learn that they are being asked to leave with the excuse that their reservation booked months before is no good, then they stand in the street as President Lindbergh flies over the city piloting an Air Force jet and the crowds around them erupt in cheers.  I can believe that scenes similar to this have actually been experienced by minority families in the US capital.

The plausibility continues as the American Jewish community divides over how to approach Lindbergh’s administration, whether or not to believe growing rumors that there are programs underway in collusion with Nazi Germany to answer the Jewish Question in North America.  Some prominent Jewish leaders cozy up to the administration and are rewarded with jobs and celebrity, while those who fight new moves to politely yet coercively relocate Jews are labeled as fear-mongers not to be listened to.

Not to ruin the book, I will only say that I don’t think that Roth pulled off the ending, although I don’t think it would have been at all pleasant if he had written an ending in continuity with the rest of the book.

My basic take: if you’re interested in history, race in America, World War II, or trying out Philip Roth as an author, this is definitely worth your time, despite some disappointment near the end.


For the last week(-ish), I have been powering through The Lord of the Rings…the entire Lord of the Rings.  Something about learning that those-in-the-know know that LOTR is not a trilogy of novels but a single, three-volume (and yet more confusingly, six-booked) novel made me think I should read it all at a go.  That’s been a good thing, for the most part, but it does sit a bit heavy in the stomach, as Meriadoc Brandybuck might say.

Add to this heaviness a job interview I had today.  For me, all job interviews sit heavily on the stomach, and prison chaplaincy is itself not the lightest of work.  Afterwards, to reinvigorate myself, Holly and I went out to lunch at the not-that-great Lime & Basil on Franklin St. in Chapel Hill.

And then, we went thrifting.  The woman at Pennies for Change was overjoyed to see me buying Philip Roth’s debut novel, Goodbye, Columbus (for which dude won the National Book Award at age 27, and which is actually not a novel but the title novella plus five short stories), and now I’m happy too.

I haven’t finished it yet, but on the 20th century male-coming-of-age-tale’s innocence to scandalousness spectrum, it falls not too far to the right of Catcher in the Rye and a good bit to the left of Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers.

Goodbye, Columbus is also hilarious.  From a conversation between the main character, Neil, and his girlfriend’s mother, ellipses being Roth’s and the hyperlink being mine:

Mrs Patimkin asked immediately–and strategically it seemed–‘We’re all going to Temple Friday night.  Why don’t you come with us?  I mean, are you orthodox or conservative?’

I considered.  ‘Well, I haven’t gone in a long time…I sort of switch…’  I smiled.  ‘I’m just Jewish,’ I said well-meaningly, but that too sent Mrs Patimkin back to her Hadassah work.  Desperately I tried to think of something that would convince her I wasn’t an infidel.  Finally I asked: ‘Do you know Martin Buber’s work?’

‘Buber…Buber,’ she said, looking at her Hadassah list.  ‘Is he orthodox or conservative?’ she asked.

‘…He’s a philosopher.’

‘Is he reformed?’ she asked, piqued either at my evasiveness or at the possibility that Buber attended Friday night services without a hat, and Mrs. Buber had only one set of dishes in her kitchen.

‘Orthodox,’ I said faintly.

‘That’s very nice,’ she said.