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Friday, September 10, 2010

The Plot Against America

The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth
(3/5 stars)

I was all set to give this at least 4 stars--and then came the last fifty pages.  I haven't been this disappointed with an ending since reading "Next" by James Hynes.  (Admittedly that was only a few months ago.)  Amazon's review calls that ending "ingenious."  I would call it "far-fetched," "ridiculous," "implausible," "deux-ex-machina," and most of the 7 words you can't say on television.  It's an ending that completely destroys an otherwise good novel.

This is one of those "alternate history" novels.  Only Roth's is more plausible (until the end) than say Harry Turtledove's "Guns of the South" where time travelers give machine-guns to the south in the civil war.  Roth's scenario all turns on Charles Lindbergh running for president in 1940 and winning.  I'm not sure Lindy could have beat an experienced politician and campaigner like FDR even if he had run, but that's not important.

Instead of focusing on Lindbergh, FDR, or any historical persons, most of the story revolves around Philip Roth and his family.  (Because if there's a subject Philip Roth really loves it's Philip Roth.)  Philip is 7 at the start of the book and lives in a flat with his older brother Sandy, his insurance salesman father, his stay-at-home mother, and his orphaned cousin Alvin.

After Lindbergh takes office, his parents--especially his father--fear that America will turn into a fascist state like Nazi Germany.  He has reason to fear when Lindy signs an "understanding" with Hitler to maintain peace between them.  Cousin Alvin goes off to Canada to join the British in opposing the Nazis while Sandy becomes smitten with Lindbergh after a stint on a Kentucky farm through the "Just Folks" program that sends urban kids--mostly Jews--to rural areas to spend a summer.

That kind of cultural assimilation is the most anti-Semitic it gets through most of the book, except for an incident on a trip to Washington DC.  Most of the time the Roth family's fear and paranoia is the real enemy.  There are no concentration camps or gas chambers.

Most of the book then is a portrait of how fear can tear a family apart, as it nearly does the Roth family.  Fissures form between Philip's father and Cousin Alvin, between Philip's father and Sandy, and between Philip's mother and her sister, who marries a rabbi who advises the new First Lady.

Where the book really goes astray is by trying to tack on a sort of happy ending.  OK, here's your spoiler alert:

There's the spoiler space!

Anyway, in the last 50 pages, Walter Winchell makes wild accusations about Lindbergh on the air and gets fired.  When he decides to run against Lindy (a campaign with as much chance as Stephen Colbert in 2012), he's assassinated in Louisville.  This sparks riots and anti-Jewish attacks.

That's all fine.  Where it really goes wrong is that Lindbergh flies to Louisville in the "Spirit of St. Louis" and delivers a brief speech to reassure people.  After that he disappears!  The plane presumably crashes somewhere.  Like something out of "24" the new president starts arresting people right and left, including FDR.  He even goes so far as to have Mrs. Lindbergh committed.  But she escapes and delivers a speech accusing the new president of treason and he's arrested and a new election held.  FDR wins this election and from there everything goes back to the timeline we know.  The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and America enters the war.

And in less than 3 years we're victorious!  That's the most implausible part of all.  The Germans are more entrenched, as are the Japanese, and yet we defeat them in less time?  That's absurd.  This whole part becomes some bizarre patriotic flag-waving exercise that makes no sense at all.  It also relies on the deux-ex-machina device of a plane crash, after which Roth piles one absurdity onto another.

It would have made more sense to end the book unhappily.  Have the Roths flee to Canada.  Have Lindbergh set up concentration camps.  That would make sense.  Trying to make this end in a somewhat happy fashion, especially one this implausible, does not work.

There, now you can't complain about the spoilers!  The ending is one of those that makes me so angry and disappointed that it's hard to remember the rest of the book was good.  Maybe not as good as "American Pastoral" or "Portnoy's Complaint" but still better than a lot of books.

It was still better than Michael Chabon's "Yiddish Policeman's Union" which is a similar Jewish-themed alternate history.  That was wrapped in a lame Dan Brown-style thriller plot.  Roth's family drama makes for a better read--at least until the end.

(Actually they both have terribly ridiculous endings.  Maybe alternate histories just inspire that.)

That is all.

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