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Dead Right
Philip Roth can still summon the rage of the young.

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, September 14, 2008

INDIGNATION

By Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin. 233 pp. $26

Copies of Indignation, Philip Roth's ferocious little tale, ought to be handed out on college campuses along with condoms and tetanus shots. This cathartic story might vent some of the volatile self-righteousness that can consume the lives of passionate young people (and, yes, old people too). It's not that it breaks any new ground; the author's favorite themes are all here -- the comic sexual frustration of Portnoy's Complaint, the assimilation anxieties of the Zuckerman books, the enraged grievance of The Human Stain-- but with Indignation, Roth presents his most concentrated parable of self-destructive fury.

The narrator, Marcus Messner, is the perfect son, "a prudent, responsible, diligent, hardworking A student." He never gets in trouble, never smokes or drinks or stays out late. He works at his father's kosher butcher shop, and he loves his parents. But that's not enough to save him from the deadly absurdity of adult life.

Just as he did in The Plot Against America, Roth has again captured the corrosive effects of anxiety fueled by military conflict abroad. But his focus in this novel seems at first narrower: the disastrous experiences of a single Jewish family in Newark, N.J. That this family's disintegration is entirely self-inflicted makes it all the more frightening.

Marcus is the first Messner to go off to college, which should have cheered his father but, instead, fills him only with dread. "My father became frightened that I would die," Marcus tells us. The North Koreans have recently crossed the 38th parallel, and the United States has rushed into war. The possibility of his son being drafted tips Mr. Messner into paranoia. "I believed he had gone crazy," Marcus says, "crazy with worry that his cherished only child was as unprepared for the hazards of life as anyone else entering manhood, crazy with the frightening discovery that a little boy grows up, grows tall, overshadows his parents, and that you can't keep him then, that you have to relinquish him to the world."

This mature and analytical tone -- clearly Roth intruding on his young narrator's voice -- is a persistent flaw in the novel, but as a bitter parody of the hovering parent, the character of Mr. Messner is spot-on. Any father wandering around in the twilight of his child's adolescence will wince at this portrayal of a life "turned inside out by unrelenting intimations of catastrophe."

Their arguments grow so frustrating that Marcus finally says, "I had to get away from him before I killed him." In desperation, he withdraws from the college near his parents' house and transfers to a small Christian school in Winesburg, Ohio, 500 miles away, chosen on the basis of a photo in the college catalog of a handsome, confident boy whom Marcus hopes to become.

The rest of this brief novel burns through his single, disastrous year in Winesburg, the setting of that early 20th-century classic by Sherwood Anderson in which perfectly ordinary townsfolk are driven mad by their repressed desires and anxieties. Marcus's experience is an alternately hilarious and horrifying fulfillment of his father's paranoia. He hates everything about his new school: His roommates make it impossible to study; his teachers are "either too starchy or too folksy"; the fraternities are obnoxious; the men at the club where he works are anti-Semites; the college's chapel requirement offends his atheism. He lives, in other words, in a constant white-hot flame of indignation. And the most disturbing part is that he's right, but he's too naive to realize that being right is irrelevant.

The only pleasant thing that happens to him is a date with a sophisticated, sexually aggressive student named Olivia Hutton, but when she responds to his overtures more enthusiastically than he expects, he's completely undone. He can think of nothing but her, not just as an object of obsessive fantasy, but as "an enigma so profound" that he's determined to solve it, even if that means alienating everyone around him, including Olivia. It's a classic piece of Rothian sexual comedy slipping into dark shades of madness. "How could such bliss as had befallen me also be such a burden?" Marcus wonders. "I who should have been the most satisfied man in all of Winesburg was instead the most bewildered."

At the heart of the novel is a conversation between Marcus and the college dean, who has caught wind of this new student's almost immediate estrangement on campus. The dean is a little bit of a blowhard, a little pompous perhaps, a little condescending -- a dean, in other words -- but Marcus responds to his avuncular admonishments with ever increasing stridency. They engage in a long argument that reverberates right off the page with all the tension and fury Roth can bring to dialogue. As this poor young man spirals further into a fit of self-righteous anger, you can't look away; it's like some awesome aerial disaster. Trying to parry the dean's uncomfortably accurate critique of his attitude, Marcus spouts Bertrand Russell, but inwardly he sings "the most beautiful word in the English language: 'In-dig- na-tion!' " He fantasizes about running "around the campus shouting it at the top of my lungs."

How intoxicating to feel so righteous, but what a burden! Inflamed with a grandiose sense of his aggrievement, Marcus grows more irrational, more terrified of the possibility of ending up on the bloody mountains of Korea, slaughtered and drained like the carcasses in his father's butcher shop. His catastrophizing seems absurd until, in the final pages of the book, a startling revelation yanks our perspective back from the comedy of this young man's self-justification and sexual frustration. Here's a novel to be witnessed as an explosion from an author still angry enough to burn with adolescent rage and wise enough to understand how self-destructive that rage can be. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at charlesr@washpost.com.

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