Philip Roth, . . Houghton Mifflin, $26 (233pp) ISBN 978-0-547-05484-1
To celebrate the publication of Roth's 10,000th book, Houghton is proclaiming September 16 as “Indignation Day.”
Roth's brilliant and disconcerting new novel plumbs the depths of the early Cold War–era male libido, burdened as it is with sexual myths and a consciousness overloaded with vivid images of impending death, either by the bomb or in Korea. At least this is the way things appear to narrator Marcus Messner, the 19-year-old son of a Newark kosher butcher. Perhaps because Marcus's dad saw his two brothers' only sons die in WWII, he becomes an overprotective paranoid when Marcus turns 18, prompting Marcus to flee to Winesburg College in Ohio. Though the distance helps, Marcus, too, is haunted by the idea that flunking out of college means going to Korea. His first date in Winesburg is with doctor's daughter Olivia Hutton, who would appear to embody the beautiful normality Marcus seeks, but, instead, she destroys Marcus's sense of normal by surprising him after dinner with her carnal prowess. Slightly unhinged by this stroke of fortune, he at first shuns her, then pesters her with letters and finally has a brief but nonpenetrative affair with her. Olivia, he discovers, is psychologically fragile and bears scars from a suicide attempt—a mark Marcus's mother zeroes in on when she meets the girl for the first and last time. Between promising his mother to drop her and longing for her, Marcus goes through a common enough existential crisis, exacerbated by run-ins with the school administration over trivial matters that quickly become more serious. All the while, the reader is aware of something awful awaiting Marcus, due to a piece of information casually dropped about a third of the way in: “And even dead, as I am and have been for I don't know how long...” The terrible sadness of Marcus's life is rendered palpable by Roth's fierce grasp on the psychology of this butcher's boy, down to his bought-for-Winesburg wardrobe. It's a melancholy triumph and a cogent reflection on society in a time of war.
Reviewed on: 05/12/2008