Twilight of the Gods?

Off his game, but we hope not out of the competition, Philip Roth can't sustain the premise of his audacious historical rewrite.

All hell erupted when Philip Roth's latest book, The Plot Against America (Houghton Mifflin, $26), got snubbed by the National Book Awards in favor of novels by five obscure women writers living in New York City. Heading the panel was small-fiction author and connoisseur Rick Moody, famously called "the worst writer of his generation" by critic Dale Peck. Critic Carlin Romano says that the Roth snub earned Moody a new moniker: "the worst fiction chairman of his generation." I don't know how good or bad the five NBA honorees are, but it is not incredible that Roth—no matter his reputation and past work—should lose to any credible rival. Though acclaimed in some quarters, his new novel is a startling failure: drab and slapdash, muddled and aimless, finishing like a wet firecracker. Heartbreakingly, the premise promised so much more. Plot is a culmination and a daring departure. It takes off on the epics of recent American history that gave Roth a second shot at all the big awards (The Human Stain, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist) and gave John Updike's Rabbit a run for his money. It derives from his moving autobiographical work (Patrimony), his slyly quasi-autobiographical fiction (Operation Shylock), and his experimental fiction, which often features a series of literary doubles (The Counterlife). It's also a bold leap into "alternative history" fiction, which imposes a switcheroo on reality and studies the results: in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, the Nazis won World War II; in Kingsley Amis' The Alteration, the Reformation never happened. In Plot, the anti-Semite hero Charles Lindbergh, who really did accept a medal from Goering and was hailed as a potential president, beats FDR in 1940, cuts a deal with Hitler, appoints to his Cabinet Henry Ford (who really was the monstrous author of The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem), and tries to de-Semitize America by sending Jewish kids to the bacon-chomping heartland to unlearn their ways and pry them away from the world of their fathers. Roth particularizes this abstraction by painting a lovingly detailed portrait of his own homeland (New Jersey in the '30s and '40s) and the characters, who are very like himself and his family, including their names. The menaced American Jews react variously to their plight. The young Philip Roth character's father resists the government; his brother becomes a spokesperson for the Office of American Absorption. An ambitious aunt marries a rabbi who's an American fascist collaborationist apologist. Given recent real events, it's not hard to imagine quasi-fascist thugs parading through American streets beneath the flag of patriotism. (As in our SW interview, facing page, Roth objects to the many reviewers who've noted pointed parallels between his faux folksy '40s tyrant and Bush, though it's hard not to believe he intended at least a Bush-bashing subtext.) Incredibly, Roth drains most of the drama out of these bold historical inventions, writing in a dead naturalistic style. He reminds me of Steve Martin, who also rose to megafame as a brilliant clown, then spent the rest of his life never cracking a smile, affecting a mandarin astringency. Roth seems desperate to live down his wild and crazy Portnoy days. His new voice of spectral intelligence works in most of his recent books but fails utterly in this novel. Most characters are sketchily realized. A rhetorical gust kicks up here and there, spins like a dust devil, and subsides, but there is no narrative engine. Plot's plot wanders in a barren wilderness—it doesn't even know what to do with Lindbergh, who flies off into the blue yonder and disappears. After diverging from history in 1940 through 1942, the story rejoins reality, leaving us none the wiser. It may be the twilight of the literary gods. Tom Wolfe's college-sex opus I Am Charlotte Simmons was stomped to death by the torch-wielding villagers of the literary establishment; Updike's elegiac sexy senior-citizen's novel Villages was the sixth of his seven most recent books that failed to make The New York Times best-seller list, where he spent most of his life as a permanent resident of its poshest precincts. And now Roth loses the big prize to the Five Unknowns, while losing sight of his talent. Let's hope not for good.

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