“There was no system for managing so sinister a mess.”[i]
My post today follows up on my previous one from November 28th. Recalling that post, The Plot Against America is a fiction in the form of an alternate history. In it, the novelist Philip Roth considers what would have happened had Charles Lindbergh, buoyed by the America First movement, won the presidency over FDR in 1940. The novel is the story of the turmoil experienced by a Jewish American family in Newark, New Jersey as creeping fascism sets in over several months from 1941 to 1942. Roughly, the mood in the family’s enclave in Newark moves from shock to anger, defiance, then crippling fear, until something very near to chaos ensues.
The narrator of the novel is Philip Roth, who recalls from the remove of adulthood what happened in those months when he was between the ages of eight and nine as the events unfold. He reconstructs his boyhood thinking, reflecting on it and the reactions of his parents and members of his extended family.
The Roth family is divided over the Lindberg administration. Herman, the father, for most of the story is defiant in the face of Lindbergh’s administration, trusting that American history and its institutions will ultimately prevail. Bess, the mother, is most concerned for the safety of her family, and so worries about Herman’s principled obstreperousness and eventually lobbies for a move to Canada. Sandy, the eldest of the boys, for some time embraces the Lindbergh administration and its programs, only to rejoin the family fold much later in the novel. Sandy is encouraged in his betrayal by Bess’s sister Evelyn, who eventually marries the Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, a collaborator who runs the OAA (Office of American Absorption), managing the Jewish Question for the Lindbergh administration, including policies of assimilation and resettlement. Alvin, a cousin who had been orphaned as a young boy, radicalized by Lindbergh’s election, joins the Canadian army to fight the Nazis in Europe, losing his leg in the process. Philip stays loyal to his father and mother, but his world is structured around childhood beliefs and a series of picaresque misadventures, so his reaction is the most confusing and at the same time the most poignant.
When Alvin returns after a long recovery in Canada, he moves into the Roth home, taking a room with little Phil, replacing Sandy, who moves into the family parlor. As one would expect of a little boy, Philip alternates between feelings of revulsion and fascination over Alvin’s missing limb. He also believes the house has become haunted for any number of reasons. He resolves to be a good kid:
One evening a few days before Alvin’s scheduled return I shined his pair of brown shoes and his pair of black shoes, ignoring as best I could any uncertainty I had as to whether shining all four of them was still necessary. To make those shoes gleam, to get his good clothes clean, to neatly pile the dresser drawers with his freshly washed things—as all of it simply a prayer, an improvised prayer imploring the household gods to protect our humble five rooms and all they contained from the vengeful fury of the missing leg (132-33).
Philip understands why he has to share a room with Alvin even though he would have preferred the parlor. “But how possibly could Sandy, who was now working for Lindbergh, share a room with someone who had lost a leg going to war against Lindbergh’s Nazi friends?” (133)
Alvin is broken. He no longer fulminates over Lindbergh and fascism. His prosthetic and the stump of his leg dominate his everyday life. Because of a bad fitting prosthesis, the site of his amputation continually breaks down:
“Is it healed?” I asked him.
“How long will it take?”
“Forever,” he replied.
I was stunned. This is endless! I thought.
“Extremely frustrating,” Alvin said. “You get on the leg they make for you and the stump breaks down. You get on crutches and it starts to swell up. The stump goes bad whatever you do” (136-37).
Eventually Philip becomes invaluable to Alvin, dressing the leg every day for him, the leg that will never heal. Alvin’s Sisyphean labors over his lost leg are a metaphor for the unalterable losses of the family and their world, the trauma that will forever haunt them in the aftermath of the Lindbergh administration. From Philip’s perspective the missing leg is another part of an enchanted world full of menacing specters. What else can explain all of these extraordinary events, these ruptures tearing at the peace and safety of his childhood? For a time, living with Alvin and nursing his wounds gives Phil purpose, but this isn’t the kind of structure a child needs. It’s a structure that develops from dealing with trauma, coping with the continually unexpected and the continually breaking down. It leads to fantasies. Philip’s sense of haunting only expands. He comes to believe that the ghosts of dead and vengeful extended family members have it out him from down in the cellar, which suggests that he owes them something, that he is guilty of some kind of betrayal.
The downstairs neighbors—the Wishnows, Mr. and Mrs. and their son Seldon—become part of the madness. Mr. Wishnow is dying, and his cancerous coughs only punctuate the fear of the space: “a cough that sounded from the cellar as though he were being ripped apart by the teeth of a two-man saw” (140).
Political activism ended, Alvin eventually falls in with a group of local ne’er-do-wells, but the FBI nonetheless pursues him relentlessly. They ruin what little life he has left in Newark, but not before Philip’s fantastical world reaches a fevered pitch of paranoia. He encounters Alvin shooting dice on the street and while fascinated, as boys understandably are with the illicit world of men, he laments what has become of his cousin: “as I watched him now in the clutches of his inferiors, and remembered all that my family had sacrificed to prevent him from turning himself into a replica of Shushy [Margolis, a local gangster], every obscenity I’d learned as his roommate flooded foully in my mind” (162). Alvin wins a good pile of cash and gives Philip two ten dollar bills, an extraordinary amount of money for a boy of nine in 1942.
As he makes his way home, an FBI man moves in beside him, asking him questions. As the agent asks him what the dice-shooting men were talking about, he thinks about the twenty dollars. A steady beat of leading questions come from the agent, who shamelessly tries to glean information from a scared boy. His kindly façade is chilling:
“Call me Don, why don’t you? And I’ll call you Phil. You know what a fascist is, don’t you Phil?”
“I think so.”
“Did they call anybody a fascist that you remember?”
“Don’t rush yourself. Don’t rush to answer. Take all the time you need. Try hard to remember. It’s important. Did they call anybody a fascist? Did they say anything about Hitler? You know who Hitler is.”
He’s a bad man, isn’t he?”
“Yes, I said.
He’s against the Jews, isn’t he?”
“Who else is against the Jews?”
“The [German] Bund.”
“Anyone else?” he asked.
Philip is smart enough to know that he should keep quiet at that point lest he incriminate his family: “‘Don’t talk,’ I told myself, as though a protected boy of nine were mixed up with criminals and had something to hide. But I must have already begun to think of myself as a little criminal because I was a Jew” (167).
This is the horrible magic of fascism. By a series of terrifying steps, it takes advantage of innocence, transforming it into criminality. It then marks a person’s very identity as illegal or illicit. This is also heartbreaking, because Philip had begun to think of himself “as a little criminal.” He was a good boy, but his moral universe was spinning into chaos as the unforeseen and the unprecedented became regular parts of his life. The missing leg wanted vengeance. The cellar was haunted. To be Jewish was a crime.
Philip runs home only to come upon police cars and an ambulance. Mr. Wishnow had killed himself. “But then I realized that the ghost of Mr. Wishnow would now join the circle of ghosts already inhabiting the cellar and that, just because I was relieved he was dead, he would go out of his way to haunt me for the rest of his life” (168).
In a moment of confusion, the boy’s guilt takes over completely. He sees not Mrs. Wishnow but his mother emerging from the house with the medics. He now believes his father has committed suicide, not Mr. Wishnow, “He couldn’t take any more of Lindbergh and what Lindbergh was letting the Nazis do to the Jews of Russia and what Lindbergh had done to our family right here and so it was he who had hanged himself—in our closet (169). From the vantage point of a child, the narrator thus collapses international events far away with immediate, intimate ones, appearing in the family home, “in our closet” a space of privacy and hidden things, now exposed for the world to know.
The memory of his father in his head at that moment is astounding. It connects the elements of Philip’s menacingly enchanted world, the guilt, the missing leg, Alvin, his father’s everyday kindnesses:
I didn’t have hundreds of memories of him then, I had just one, and it did not seem to me at all important enough to be the memory I ought to be having. Alvin’s last memory of his father was of him closing the car door on his little boy’s finger—mine of my father was of him greeting the stump of a man who begged every day outside his office building. “How you doin’, Little Robert?” my father said, and the stump of a man replied, “How you, Herman?” (169)
It’s deadpan and yet devastating stuff, some of the best in the novel. Philip collapses into sobs and then tries to tear himself from his mother’s embrace to go after the ambulance. His mother attempts to break the spell, but his cracked childhood universe is too persistent:
“It’s Mr. Wishnow—it’s Mr. Wishnow who is dead.” She shook me back and forth to bring me to my senses. “It’s Seldon’s father dear—he died from illness this afternoon.”
I couldn’t tell if she was lying to keep me from becoming more hysterical or if she was telling the wonderful truth (169).
I’ll quote the narrator’s account of what happens next. It sums it all up better than I can. It’s one of those really good Roth summings up, where the pace of the paragraph speeds up, unrelentingly breathless as the repetitions reach a climactic moment:
I didn’t know why Alvin was bad now instead of good. I didn’t know if I had dreamed that an FBI agent had questioned me on Chancellor Avenue. It had to be a dream and yet couldn’t be if everybody else said they’d been questioned too. Unless that was the dream. I felt woozy and thought I was going to faint. I’d never before seen anyone faint, other than in a movie, and I’d never before fainted myself. I’d never before looked at my house from a hiding place across the street and wished that it was somebody else’s. I’d never before had twenty dollars in my pocket. I’d never before known anyone who’d seen his father hanging in a closet. I’d never before had to grow up at a pace like this.
Never before—the great refrain of 1942.
The denouement of the section is a punch in the gut for its naiveté: “I remained in bed with a high fever for six days, so weak and lifeless that the family doctor stopped by every evening to check on the progress of my disease, that not uncommon childhood ailment called why-can’t-it-be-the-way-it-was” (172).
Touching as that is, reading these pages in November 2016, one realizes only too well that it’s time to grow up. Roth has set a trap. He suspends meaningful politics for the narrow world of a child’s reasonable desire for structure, here figured as nostalgia for the immediate past. I’ll continue next time with more on this idea and others as they appear in the novel.
[i] Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 340-1. Succeeding references to the book in parentheses.