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Lindbergh at America's helm

The Plot Against America A Novel Philip Roth Houghton Mifflin: 392 pp., $26

September 22, 2004|Greil Marcus | Special to The Times

Early on in Philip Roth's imagining of America as it might have been if Charles Lindbergh had defeated Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 and become president, Roth's father, Herman, his mother, Bess, his older brother, Sandy, and himself, Philip, 8 years old, make a trip to Washington, D.C. They are about to discover that, as a small Jewish family, they are a twig in a fascist sea.

By this time President Lindbergh -- elected on his slogan "Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War," who in the 1930s emerged as a political figure and as an admirer of Hitler, who proudly wears the Nazi Service Cross of the German Eagle, and publicly attacks America's Jews for supposedly maneuvering the country into joining the European war and for being a traitorous class loyal not to the United States but only to themselves -- has already signed ententes with Germany and with Japan. He accepts the Axis conquests of Europe and Asia and leaves Britain to its fate. Shaped as a memoir, "The Plot Against America" looks back on this invented history through the prism of a young boy's experience and his family's loss of all of their assumptions about its place in the world -- and as Philip's family leaves its Jewish neighborhood in Newark, N.J., Roth, today, at once imagines and remembers: "The only ones against [Lindbergh], the people said, are the Jews."

So four people drive into the heart of a nation that is in the process of casting them out of itself: to erase them from its story, to deny them any chance to claim it as their own. That's not how Roth's parents, and Philip, who has brought his stamp collection with him, with all of its pictures of national heroes and monuments, see it as they arrive; they have come to prove that they do belong. They are American-born. They are patriots. They are passionately caught up in the great public issues of the day, and for them the great issues of the American past are alive in the present. Like anybody else, they think, they are the American story -- without America they would have no story worth telling, even to themselves. And, right here, Roth -- the person writing -- raises the stakes as high as a patriotic novel can take them. In their days in and around the capitol, their hotel reservations will be canceled. "Loudmouth Jew," they will hear, and then they will hear it again. But now, they are simply driving into town. "Immediately upon entering Washington," Roth writes,

we made a wrong turn in the heavy traffic, and while my mother was trying to read the road map and direct my father to our hotel, there appeared before us the biggest white thing I had ever seen. Atop an incline at the end of the street stood the U.S. Capitol, the broad stairs sweeping upward to the colonnade and capped by the elaborate three-tiered dome. Inadvertently, we had driven right to the very heart of American history, and whether we knew it in so many words, it was American history, delineated in its most inspirational form, that we were counting on to protect us against Lindbergh.

As the story unfolds -- and as the plot in the novel's title takes shape and shifts shape, the betrayal of the nation for a moment coming into focus, then almost dissolving in tales of conspiracy too baroque to believe (even though, until they are put on the page, you will have believed every word that came before, and so wonder, "Well, why not? What's the better explanation?") -- the reader will realize that it is not that simple, and that there is no protection.

Unlike Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel "It Can't Happen Here," in which a Democratic senator takes the nomination from FDR in 1936 and is elected president on a platform promising the suspension of the Constitution and the immediate imposition of a racist, fascist dictatorship, Roth moves his story forward very slowly, inch by inch. Detail accumulates, reality builds, people accommodate themselves to it, and when this reality is violated people try to accommodate themselves once more, and then reality refuses to accommodate itself to them. For Herman Roth, the alterations in the country -- for one, Lindbergh's creation of the Office of American Absorption, meant to make "emerging Americans," that is, Jews, into real Americans, or to scatter Jewish communities, divide Jewish families and mark off those few whose innate skills in finance and manipulation might be useful from the majority who will not be -- seem unimaginably threatening and definitively un-American; but he tries to make sense of them. To Roth's brother Sandy, who becomes an Absorption poster boy, the changes are thrilling. To the country at large, they are of no account, because for real Americans life goes on as before, and the nation is not at war.

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