'Indignation' by Philip Roth

His unmistakable voice still loud, but getting shrill

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In Philip Roth's America, the Jew continues the Diaspora, never secure, never completely at home. The closest Roth's characters come to a brief haven is his native Newark -- "hard-working, coarse-grained, bribe-ridden, semi-xenophobic Irish-Italian-German-Slavic-Jewish-Negro Newark."

Even that town's security was threatened in his brilliant "The Plot Against America," when the Jew-hating Charles Lindbergh and his fellow anti-Semites took over the White House.

When a Roth creation leaves Newark for the wider Gentile nation, he runs into trouble, like Seymour "Swede" Levov in "American Pastoral" or Coleman Silk in "The Human Stain," both a Jew and a black man.


By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin ($26)


But, his latest excursion into the heartland -- Ohio, of course -- is less successful, probably because it's less ambitious.

"Indignation" is more of a proposal for a novel rather than a fully realized one, a too-short cry of desperation and despair.

The story is bare-bones:

Young Marcus Messner, the only child of a kosher butcher and his wife, flees Newark in 1951 to escape his father's growing paranoia to a small liberal arts college somewhere near Cleveland. He picked it because of the idyllic picture on the school's catalog:

"There were big leafy trees on either side of the two happy students and they were walking down a grassy hill with ivy clad buildings ... and the girl was smiling so appreciatively at the boy and the boy looked so confident and carefree beside her ..."

It's a fraud, of course. Winesburg College in the famously fictional Winesburg, Ohio, is part of America's WASP establishment of intolerance, rigidity and moral hypocrisy.

Sherwood Anderson knew enough to abandon the small-mindedness of Elyria, Ohio, for the freedom of Chicago, where he found himself as a writer.

Roth reverses the process, sending Messner away from the varied, haphazard streets of Newark to the bucolic repression of a hidebound society still following the traditions of the 19th century.

In only a few short months, the picture of normality is wiped out, the true nature of Winesburg gushes out in vintage Roth sexual imagery culminating in an orgiastic panty raid, homosexual frustration and investigations worthy of Joe McCarthy.

Messner is crushed by those events, his own naivete and his hopeless attachment to a troubled young woman, a typical Rothian promiscuous WASP female. Expelled, he's drafted and lands in the Korean War, where he is butchered at age 19 like the meat his father sells.

The novel, then, is told by a dead man forced to replay over and over the details of his short life.

"Is that what eternity is for, to muck over a lifetime's minutiae?" the disembodied Messner cries plaintively.

The qualities that make Roth such a powerful and seductive writer -- his unmatched talents to create a variety of worlds and the unquenchable anger that fuels the pages of rants and condemnations from his characters -- are in full force here.

But, it's all too much, crammed into a novella-length space and rolled out without pause, rants followed by outrages, then more rants.

If Messner's meltdown and bloody death isn't enough indignation, Roth's descriptions of butchering chickens and cows the kosher way -- the animals are sliced open and bleed to death -- are both clinical and ghastly, an obvious replica of Messner's own slaughter in Korea by bayonet.

Something's missing here, maybe a further exploration of the human heart or emotions other than anger. Roth has done better work.

Contact book editor Bob Hoover at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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