Fascist fiction

The Canadian border has been sealed shut. New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt have been arrested by the FBI. The administration’s most strident critic, tabloid columnist Walter Winchell, has been silenced with an assassin’s bullet. This all comes in the wake of riots that have killed 122 American Jews.

It’s 1942 and in the feverish imagination of Philip Roth, America is galloping towards fascism. All because Charles Lindbergh, the national aviation hero and unabashed anti-Semite, defeated FDR in the election of 1940 under the slogan: “Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War!”

Told through the eyes of a nine-year-old character named “Philip Roth,” The Plot Against America uses history as a springboard to explore the collision of politics and family life. This is familiar turf for Roth, though the 71-year-old recluse has dispensed with his familiar strategy of using his favorite foil, novelist Nathan Zuckerman, as a conduit through which the epic tales of Newark’s fallen sons are transformed into folklore. Instead, the story is told directly from a boy’s perspective, and as such it’s one of Roth’s most intense novels ever.

Set in Roth’s native Newark, fascism is not something murmuring in the hinterlands. Rather, it invades a family’s psyche; pitting son against father, sister against sister, and a young boy against a much of reality.

The family includes father Herman Roth, a grade school-educated insurance salesman whose living room diatribes against Lindbergh mount to little more than a benchmark for his emasculation; Bess, Philip’s mother, a woman possessed of a calming practicality that is the glue that holds the family together; and Sandy, Philip’s older brother, who is a talented artist giddy with the opportunities afforded him under Lindbergh’s fascist 4-Club known as “Just Folks”: A federal initiative aimed at immersing urban (read Jewish) youth with “heartland” families for a summer of agrarian toil.

History is a horror show in The Plot, not just in the names of sinister federal programs (“Just Folks” is part of the “Office of American Absorption”) but in quieter ways. In one scene, Philip watches a newsreel of FDR addressing a rally against the White House visit of Nazi foreign affairs minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.

FDR: “The only thing we have to fear is the obsequious yielding to his Nazi friends by Charles Lindbergh.”

“A good half of the movie audience booed and hissed while the rest, including my father, clapped as loudly as they could and I wondered if a war might not break out right there on Broad Street in the middle of the day and if, when we left the darkened theater, we’d find downtown Newark a rubble heap of smoking ruins and fires burning everywhere.”

Historical fiction often falls flat because writers can’t integrate their research with their storytelling. Typically they overcompensate on research, and the result is a book that lacks the depth of a scholarly work and the transformative power of fiction. But because Roth’s Weequahic is a world as fully realized as Baldwin’s Harlem or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, and because history is an embarking point (not a boundary) for his imagination, readers can practically hear the boot’s stomping into New Jersey.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to read The Plot without pondering its allegorical implications. Linking the current administration with capital ‘F’ Fascism is the stuff of a tweaked out fringe, but the climate of fear that haunts The Plot is sadly familiar. Lindbergh’s imagined slogan, “Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War!” bears more than a minor resemblance to Dick Cheney’s recent suggestion that a vote for Kerry is a vote for Osama. Roth does not go in for “it could happen here” aphorisms, but by illustrating what it might have looked like, he scares us as deeply as any code orange alert.