- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008


By Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin, $26, 256 pages


Ford Madox Ford wanted to call his great novel, “The Good Soldier,” by what he rightly believed to be the better title: “The Saddest Story.” Now nearly a century later, Philip Roth’s latest novel, aptly titled “Indignation” because it contains so much of it, also merits Ford’s would-be title, because it is perhaps the saddest story Mr. Roth has ever written. Spare, harsh, dry in tone if not content, full of hard-won life lessons, relentless in hammering home its points, “Indignation” is a heartbreaker.

Its hero is not Nathan Zuckerman or David Kepesh or even “Philip Roth” - that trio of alter-egos who customarily stand in for the author. This time its Marcus “Markie” Messner, like Mr. Roth a Jewish boy from Newark, N.J., who goes West, but not all that far, to college in Ohio, as Mr. Roth himself went to Bucknell. He’s a few months older than Mr. Roth, but his life turns out very differently from that of the rich, world-famous, successful septuagenarian novelist. In personality, background, character, beliefs, disposition, he seems very much like what one suspects the author to have been like toward the end of his teenage years. And so the book is suffused with a definite feeling of what the French call “alter-histoire” or alternative history, in this case life-history. What could so easily have happened instead to Mr. Roth because “of the terrible, the incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result,” as he muses at the novel’s end.

For as the reader learns relatively soon, Markie’s first-person narrative, which makes up most of the text, comes to us from a kind of limbo following his premature death. That there should be this kind of afterlife, where apparently the dead have an eternity to mull over their earthly lives, is in itself pretty odd given Markie’s stridently avowed atheism, an attitude that Mr. Roth seems to endorse and even share. In revealing that this narrative comes from a dead soul, a reviewer would not be spoiling things for the reader as he might if he had jumped the gun in the case of Mr. Roth’s “The Human Stain,” with its stunning late revelation. That recasts the entire novel and makes one want to go back and read it again up to that point. Here the revelation that Markie is dead makes immediate sense, hinted at from the beginning by his narration being titled “Under Morphine.” So when he casually drops the phrase “through that last year of my life,” it comes less as bombshell than confirmation. And indeed the novel as a whole, with its plot set in motion by the desperate fearfulness that has suddenly overcome Markie’s father as his son takes his first tentative - and local - steps into adulthood, is suffused with a sense of foreboding.

To Markie, a good, dutiful son who labors uncomplainingly in his father’s kosher butchery but is desperate to get an education and break away to become a lawyer, his father’s fears are ridiculous. Moreover, they are intolerable to him - and to his mother - and so he sees no alternative to fleeing from his local college in Newark to put some distance between him and these smothering fears that seem to be poisoning what had previously been a hard-working but happy family. But the flight to a Protestant college in Ohio, where among other things, Markie falls afoul of compulsory chapel attendance, leads to disaster: A veritable appointment in Samara.

As he has grown older, Mr. Roth, erstwhile master-creator of rebellious children impatient with their parents, has increasingly been notable for affirming parental benevolence and wisdom. “Indignation” is no exception: Mr. Roth specifically links Markie’s hard-won lesson at the novel’s conclusion to “learning what his uneducated father had been trying so hard to teach him all along.” So the manic dad, seemingly so consumed by irrational fears as to drive his beloved son to put hundreds of miles of distance between them and his devoted wife seriously to contemplate divorce, is starkly vindicated. Certainly, those fears are also shown to drive Markie ineluctably toward his doom, but nonetheless the words “your father was right” seem to be a kind of watermark rising retrospectively out of each page.

Powerful and wrenching though it is, “Indignation” is not one of Mr. Roth’s major novels. And as we approach the feeding frenzy surrounding each fall’s award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, with Mr. Roth inevitably tipped and the hapless winner unfavorably compared to his spurned much-vaunted greatness, perhaps it is time to put him in a bit of salutary perspective. Even at his best - say in 1997’s “American Pastoral”- Mr. Roth is a minor writer. Accomplished yes, but not one of the truly great. Not just no Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky - as people mock the Partisan Review for sighing over and over again in their reviews - but to put it bluntly, no Doris Lessing. He lacks her range and depth, her experimentation with form and her ability to engage and see through the major ideologies of their time. So, if he finally gets it this time, all hail him: It’s been a long time in coming and it’s gone to more minor writers than he. But if, once again, he doesn’t, enough with the lamentations.

Which is not to devalue Mr. Roth’s virtues: His comic genius (understandably only intermittently on display in “Indignation”) and the forcefulness of his prose. And above all, his ability to summon up the texture of the quotidian life of what is now the distant time and place he and Markie Messner grew up in.

  • Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
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