THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA *

By Philip Roth. Houghton Mifflin. 391 pp. $26 Philip Roth's huge, inflammatory, painfully moving new novel draws upon a persistent theme in American life: "It can't happen here." That's how we express our longing to believe that our ideals are too strong to be shoved aside by some cruder impulse, and our nagging fear that our democracy is too fragile to withstand assault by the muscle of fascism. In 1935 Sinclair Lewis took the familiar phrase as the title for a novel that depicted the seeds of totalitarianism sprouting in a small New England town; It Can't Happen Here is not among Lewis's best works, but it was widely read at a time when Americans were becoming apprehensive about the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, and when it was translated into German the Nazis banned it, implicitly acknowledging its power to sway people's minds.

Now, with the United States at unceasing risk of terrorist attack and with many Americans fearful that civil liberties are being compromised as the government attempts to fight terrorism, Roth gives new currency to the old phrase -- indeed, deliberately employs it as The Plot Against America approaches its climax. "It can't happen here?" a prominent American politician asks a large audience in New York City in October 1942. "My friends, it is happening here . . . ."

The Plot Against America brings the sum of Roth's books to more than two dozen. It may well be his best, and it may well arouse more controversy than all the rest combined. This is saying something, when one considers the storms of hilarity and outrage set off by Portnoy's Complaint (1969), Roth's masturbatory comedy; Our Gang (1971), his burlesque of the Nixon administration; and The Human Stain (2000), in which he ranted against the "enormous piety binge, a purity binge," when President Clinton's opponents seized upon the Monica Lewinsky affair to conduct a noisy crusade in which, in Roth's view, "the smallness of people was simply crushing."

It says a great deal about Roth that when he accepted an award from PEN, the international writers' organization, not long after the publication of The Human Stain, it was this provocative passage he chose to read to the assembled literati at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. Roth is a defiant provocateur who gives whole new universes of meaning to the phrase "in your face." He simply cannot resist any opportunity to scratch an existing wound or cause a new one. At the Folger, as it happens, he was preaching to the choir, and the reception was warm. The response to The Plot Against America almost certainly will be something else altogether.

Leaving aside the novel's subtext, which gives every appearance of being an attack on George W. Bush and his administration, consider the premise upon which it is constructed: that in the presidential election of 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt is soundly defeated by the Republican nominee, Charles A. Lindbergh, who immediately signs nonaggression treaties with Hitler's Germany and Hirohito's Japan, and then institutes a succession of programs "encouraging America's religious and national minorities to become further incorporated into the larger society" -- programs clearly intended "to weaken the solidarity of the Jewish social structure as well as to diminish whatever electoral strength a Jewish community might have in local and congressional elections." As events unfold, it becomes clear that the administration embraces, and intends to enforce, "the Nazi dogma of Aryan superiority," the "precept at the heart of Lindbergh's credo and of the huge American cult that worships the president."

Lindbergh is a venerated (though often misunderstood) American who, after the controversy aroused by his prewar isolationism and his September 1941 speech denouncing the Jewish "influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government," turned to less heated matters and became an elder statesman; the success enjoyed by A. Scott Berg's Lindbergh: A Biography (1998) is testimony to his continuing hold on the American imagination. So one hardly needs clairvoyance to predict that The Plot Against America will be greeted in many quarters with fury, not just by political conservatives but by ordinary people who still see Lindbergh, in Roth's words, as "normalcy raised to heroic proportions, a decent man with an honest face and an undistinguished voice who had resoundingly demonstrated to the entire planet the courage to take charge and the fortitude to shape history and, of course, the power to transcend personal tragedy."

Certainly it is understandable that some people will refuse to read The Plot Against America because its depiction of Lindbergh offends them, but the loss will be theirs. This is not a novel about Lindbergh (or Roosevelt, or Henry Ford, or Fiorello LaGuardia, or any of the other historical figures who appear in its pages) but a novel about America: the complex and often contentious mix of people who inhabit it, its sustaining strengths and its persistent vulnerabilities, its susceptibility to demagoguery and anti-democratic impulses. It is also a novel about living amid the turmoil and unpredictability of history, about people's powerlessness "to stop the unforeseen," or, as its narrator says: "Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as 'History,' harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic."

The man who says those words is named Philip Roth. He is an adult now -- age unspecified, presumably the same as that of the author, who turned 70 last year -- but the story he tells takes place when he was a boy between the ages of 7 and 9. As did the author himself, he lives in Newark with his mother, father and older brother, in a tightly knit lower-middle-class Jewish community where, by 1940, "Jewish parents and their children at the southwestern corner of New Jersey's largest city talked to one another in an American English that sounded more like the language spoken in Altoona or Binghamton than like the dialects famously spoken across the Hudson by our Jewish counterparts in the five boroughs."

That Roth has chosen for the umpteenth time to write fiction as imagined autobiography will annoy some readers, as it annoys me. The fixation on self has always seemed to me the greatest weakness in his work, one that has kept him from fully realizing his amazing literary gifts because it personalizes and narrows everything it touches. But for once in his fiction, the self is less important than the world outside. The Plot Against America is far and away the most outward-looking, expansive, least narcissistic book Roth has written. The effects upon young Roth of the imagined events of 1940-42 obviously are of interest and importance to him, but the real core of the book is family, community and country, and the consequences for all these of America's flirtation with fascism.

It is useful for the reader in 2004 to bear in mind that America in the early 1940s was a very different place. It was a time of "unadvertised quotas to keep Jewish admissions to a minimum in colleges and professional schools and of unchallenged discrimination that denied Jews significant promotions in the big corporations and of rigid restrictions against Jewish membership in thousands of social organizations and communal institutions." Many "prominent Americans . . . hated Jews," most blatantly and influentially Henry Ford, Burton K. Wheeler (the senator from Montana who "becomes" Lindbergh's vice president) and Father Charles E. Coughlin, the bigoted, incendiary radio preacher. Many otherwise decent ordinary people saw Jews only in stereotypes and were deeply prejudiced against them.

So, in The Plot Against America, when Lindbergh gets 57 percent of the popular vote in 1940 and wins every state except New York and Maryland, the country's 4.5 million Jews are put on notice. Philip asks his father, Herman, what Lindbergh means when he talks about "an independent destiny for America," and the answer is chilling: "It means turning our back on our friends. It means making friends with their enemies. You know what it means, son? It means destroying everything that America stands for." It means the Office of American Absorption and something called Just Folks -- "a volunteer work program for city youth in the traditional ways of heartland life" -- through which Philip's brother, Sandy, spends a summer on a farm in Kentucky owned by a man named Mawhinney:

"It went without saying that Mr. Mawhinney was a Christian, a long-standing member of the great overpowering majority that fought the Revolution and founded the nation and conquered the wilderness and subjugated the Indian and enslaved the Negro and emancipated the Negro and segregated the Negro, one of the good, clean, hard-working Christian millions who settled the frontier, tilled the farms, built the cities, governed the states, sat in Congress, occupied the White House, amassed the wealth, possessed the land, owned the steel mills and the ball clubs and the railroads and the banks, even owned and oversaw the language, one of those unassailable Nordic and Anglo-Saxon Protestants who ran America and would always run it -- generals, dignitaries, magnates, tycoons, the men who laid down the law and called the shots and read the riot act when they chose to -- while my father, of course, was only a Jew."

A stereotype, to be sure, but Mawhinney, it turns out, doesn't quite fit the stereotype. Sandy positively adores him -- a source of deep bitterness between him and his suspicious, fretful, chip-on-the-shoulder father -- and in time he does the Roth family an act of surpassing generosity. Later still, singular heroism is committed by the person closer to the president than anyone else, his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, an act given expression by her in words of genuine nobility. Sometimes stereotypes contain truths about people, but people -- Jews, gentiles, whatever -- aren't stereotypes. If Lindbergh and his followers can't see beyond them, neither can Philip's loving, protective, energetic, irascible father. Nobody is immune to bias and misunderstanding.

One of the things the haters can't see is that Herman Roth and his friends in the Jewish neighborhood of Newark are Americans every bit as much as they are Jews, and that it's just as American to be a Jew as it is to be a Christian or a Muslim or an atheist or anything else. The point is made in a moving passage that deserves to be quoted at length, because it is the core of the novel:

"They raised their families, budgeted their money, attended to their elderly parents, and cared for their modest homes alike, on most every public issue thought alike, in political elections voted alike. . . . These were Jews who needed no large terms of reference, no profession of faith or doctrinal creed, in order to be Jews, and they certainly needed no other language -- they had one, their native tongue, whose vernacular expressiveness they wielded effortlessly and, whether at the card table or while making a sales pitch, with the easygoing command of the indigenous population. Neither was their being Jews a mishap or a misfortune or an achievement to be 'proud' of. What they were was what they couldn't get rid of -- what they couldn't even begin to want to get rid of. Their being Jews issued from their being themselves, as did their being American. It was as it was, in the nature of things, as fundamental as having arteries and veins, and they never manifested the slightest desire to change it or deny it, regardless of the consequences."

When Philip's mother, Bess, urges Herman to take the family to Canada, he shouts: "I am not running away! . . . This is our country!" She sadly replies, "No, not anymore. It's Lindbergh's. It's the goyim's." But the whole brunt of the novel is that he is right and she is wrong, however difficult and dispiriting may be the task of sustaining it. The "malicious indignities of Lindbergh's America" are very real and cannot be glossed over -- in a country with a nativist streak as wide and deep as our own, it really can happen here -- but after bringing the country to the edge of the abyss, Roth mercifully and properly allows it to step back.

That Roth has written The Plot Against America in some respects as a parable for our times seems to me inescapably and rather regrettably true. When the fictional Lindbergh flies around the country "to meet with the American people face-to-face and reassure them that every decision he made was designed solely to increase their security and guarantee their well-being," the post-9/11 rhetoric of George W. Bush is immediately called to mind, as is the image of Bush aboard the aircraft carrier when Roth describes the "young president in his famous aviator's windbreaker."

The ephemera of politics have never struck me as fit raw material for the art of literature, and nothing in this novel changes my mind on that count, but there's so much of greater value and importance in it that dwelling on Roth's attitudinizing is pointless. His politics are as reflexive and tiresome as those of most other artists, literary or otherwise, and the best thing to do is to shrug them off.

As to his treatment of Lindbergh, it is an imaginative leap that I find hard to make, but it isn't rooted completely in imagination. Lindbergh did make public statements that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic, and he was indeed chummy with some very high-ranking Nazis. It is curious, though, and not much credit to Roth, that his supplemental list of suggested reading for people "interested in tracking where historical fact ends and historical imagining begins" does not include Reeve Lindbergh's memoir of her parents, Under a Wing (1998), in which, after describing her own horror at reading the 1941 speech for the first time when she was in college in the 1960s, she reflects upon her father's stubbornness and insensitivity and finds him more innocent than guilty. I am inclined to think that she is right, and that Roth should have put a fictitious crypto-fascist in the White House rather than offering a somewhat cartoonish riff upon a famous but naive and excessively self-assured man who didn't always connect words and consequences. Choosing pure fiction over "historical imagining" would of course have been considerably less sensational than putting the revered Lindbergh in the driver's seat, and the possibility that Roth had shock value in mind cannot be dismissed. What he has done is, after all, in-your-face to the max.

Still, it's Roth's book and thus Roth's choice. Besides, in the end he softens the blow with an interesting rewrite of history that casts Lindbergh in a less unfavorable, more vulnerable light. Still, the real story in The Plot Against America is that of the Roth family, which the author gives to us as a genuinely American story, about a family that undergoes absolutely wrenching internal warfare and external perils, and that comes out in the end like one of those plug-ugly New Jersey boxers who occasionally make cameo appearances in Roth's work: battered and bruised, but still on two feet, still fighting. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

Philip Roth