Sunday, October 10, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"The Plot Against America": High expectations for Philip Roth, but this twisting "Plot" is boring

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Plot Against America"

by Philip Roth

For the past 10 years Philip Roth's books have been well-reviewed by university professors in prestigious publications and gone on to win major awards, and I have no idea why. His subjects are more important than ever — McCarthyism, radical '60s violence, Jewish assimilation, African-American assimilation and the sexual and racial politics of modern society — but where's the writing?

The man used to be one of the greatest jugglers of words in the English language. He used to be laugh-out-loud funny. His more recent works, the ones that keep winning awards, are tough to slog through, without a belly laugh in the bunch. And yet there goes another award.

Half the time I fulminate against this idiocy. Half the time I wonder: Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm expecting too much. Every one of his books can't be as good as "Goodbye, Columbus," or "Portnoy's Complaint" or the Zuckerman trilogy or "Patrimony." Come to his books clean, with no expectations, and maybe you'll see what everyone else sees.

I began his latest novel, "The Plot Against America," in this frame of mind, but quickly realized the difficulty in forgetting that its author is named Philip Roth. For the protagonist of this imaginary tale, in which famed isolationist and anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh is elected president of the United States in 1940, is a young Jewish boy in the Weequahic section of Newark, N.J., named Philip Roth. Yes, he's still playing that game.

Besides, even if the author had given his youthful protagonist another name, the twist of the plot is still there. Critics of Roth (and Zuckerman) have held the Nazis over his head like a bludgeon throughout his career. What about the Nazis, Philip? Would you have written your stories, airing dirty Jewish linen, with protagonists revolting against their Jewish heritage, if you had lived in Nazi Germany?

So Roth gives them what they want. He imagines himself in a fascist, anti-Jewish state: the United States of America. It can't happen here? Yes, it can.

At times the famous Rothian wit still manages to seep through. Concentration camps don't spring up overnight. Lindbergh's administration simply creates the Office of American Absorption, an arm of which, Just Folks, is designed to inculcate city kids (read: Jewish kids) in "the traditional ways of heartland life." Philip's older brother, Sandy, is shipped to Kentucky for the summer. Sandy returns broad-shouldered and happy and praising (with a Kentucky twang) President Lindbergh — to the chagrin and eventual anger of his Lindbergh-hating father, Herman.

Meanwhile, the Roth family is upended by Philip's cousin, Alvin, who flees to Canada to fight in the European war — against America's ally, Nazi Germany — and returns with his leg amputated. The most vivid and powerful passages involve young Philip's fascination/revulsion with Alvin's stump and prosthetic leg.

As for young Philip? He's just a kid who's interested in his stamp collection or avoiding his pathetic downstairs neighbor. At one point, when things turn bad, he runs away. To a Catholic orphanage. What happens there is almost a punch line.

Yet, again, where's the writing? At climactic moments — Herman arguing with the Lindbergh-loving Rabbi Bengelsdorf, or when the Nazi plot against America is revealed — Roth retreats into vague descriptions and synopses which completely blunt any impact the scenes might have.

Worse, his once delectable prose has become as turgid as Judge Leopold Wapter's in "The Ghost Writer." He spends a page, for example, describing, in one sentence, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. It reads like a keynote address: "... the down-to-earth idol of the city's working people; the flamboyant ex-congressman ... the tenacious spokesman for the unions ... the liberal anti-Tammany reform Republican who has been the three-term Fusion mayor of the country's most populous city, the metropolis that is home to the largest concentration of Jews in the hemisphere — La Guardia is alone among the members of his party in displaying his contempt for Lindbergh and for the Nazi dogma of racial superiority that he (himself the son of an unobservant Jewish mother from Austrian Trieste and a freethinker Italian father who came to America as a ship's musician) has identified as the precept at the heart of Lindbergh's credo and of the huge American cult that worships the president."

This is boring. Yes, Philip Roth, of all writers, is boring. Just writing those words is enough to make me want to cry.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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