Mad men

Philip Roth and his young protagonist let off some steam in Indignation

By Richard Eder
September 14, 2008
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By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 233 pp., $26

It was about time that Philip Roth chose "Indignation" for a title. Most any one of his other novels could have been called the same thing. What the past was to Proust, despair to Dostoyevsky, and melodramatic struggle to Dickens, outrage is to Roth. Well, sex too, you might say, but Roth's sex churns with the growl of wrathfulness, even as his anger has a hum of the erotic.

The outrage, though, is as sardonic as it is warlike; it self-punishes more than it punishes. A Roth character is the pelican of the Easter litany, the one that stabs its own breast. In part this is for ironic effect, a spark that gives zest even to the weaker books, but it is also a vital need. I rage, therefore I am; if I did not rage, I could not be.

Or to end this preface, you could boil down his new novella into an old rhyme: "Here lies the body of Peter Gray / Who died defending the right of way. / He was right, dead right, as the train came along, / But he's just as dead as if he was wrong."

And so is young Marcus Messner. He is the decidedly unhappy warrior, the imploding fulminator of this double-take allegory on righteous indignation. (Allegory, because despite some wonderfully etched characters the book is a series of feints - many brilliant and some flimsy - more than a full-fledged story.) In nearly 30 novels Roth has ranged his inflamed narrators from adolescents to young bucks to middle-aged bucks to old wrecks. Marcus is his first dead one.

He is the son of a kosher butcher in Newark at the time of the Korean War. The father is maniacally driven by fears for his son; that he will come to harm, go bad, be led astray. He screams the fears at Marcus; once he locked him out of the house when he was late coming home, sure that he'd been with rough types at the local pool hall.

In fact he'd been at the library. He is an assiduous A student, terrified of being drafted should he fall behind. A gung-ho member of ROTC, he aims to qualify as an intelligence officer so that if he ends up in Korea he can stay out of its slashing hand-to-hand fighting. It is Roth's virtuoso skill to couple Marcus's companionable pleasure in part-time butchering with his nightmare that the knives he wields so dexterously will be used on himself.

To get away from his father's paranoia, Marcus transfers to a picture-postcard college in Ohio. Winesburg, it's called (a nod to Sherwood Anderson's subverted normalities), a white-bread place where Christian values are delivered with a nudge to the ribs. Marcus's Jewish ribs can't abide the nudge.

He finds himself in a wilderness where everything seems designed to bewilder and outrage him. His weirdo roommate torments him by playing music at top volume; when he switches his quarters the new roommate, blond, beefy, and pink, maintains hostile silence. Chapel attendance is compulsory. Working as a waiter at the college inn, he hears the drunken bellows of "Hey you, over here" as "Hey Jew, over here."

Most disruptive of all is Olivia Hutton, a WASP beauty from a well-heeled professional family. When she initiates oral sex on their first date he is so shaken - this is the 1950s - that he avoids her for days.

To Marcus, whose father's fearfulness, though rejected, has marked him, what isn't understood has to be threatening. He is smitten, nonetheless. A fluctuating passion ensues, made lethal to his precarious state by the discovery that this skyrocketing charmer is part mad and has been hospitalized for attempting suicide.

Nobody pyramids a one-damn-thing-after-the-next emotional catastrophe as soaringly as Roth. Marcus feels beleaguered on all sides, and his inherited response is outrage. Beleaguerment and fury come to climax in a series of confrontations with the college dean, who lectures him on his character defects: lack of fellowship and open mind and failure to adopt the Winesburg spirit.

Marcus goes into invasion panic: Why is he, a flawless academic performer, being messed with? In painful slapstick, as the dean spouts bland repressive tolerance, Marcus deafens himself by quietly chanting the Chinese Communist anthem: "Arise, ye who refuse to be bondslaves!" With each "arise" he bobs up; with each bob the dean orders him to sit down.

The clashes grow as Marcus works his way into worse trouble. At one point he offers the dean a glib and pompous lecture of his own: Bertrand Russell's arguments for denying God's existence. Eventually, after an egregious act of defiance (he hires someone to attend chapel for him and refuses punishment when he is found out), expulsion arrives. Followed by Korea, grisly death, and this mournful posthumous narrative.

Should he, as counseled by a Jewish fellow student (Roth sculpts shrewdly with merciless cuts), have gone along to get along? Or stood firm, to end up dead and not at peace but in pieces? Roth provides no answer.

Jean Renoir's great "Rules of the Game" sums up with the line "Everyone has his reasons." For Roth also, but the reasons are at once insane, plausible, and disastrous.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.

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