Philip Roth’s reluctant (dead) soldier

John Freeman is completing a book on the tyranny of e-mail.

Graham Greene called them “entertainments.” Ian McEwan says his own brief books are “one-sitting reads.” Neither term, however, conveys the swift, jagged density Philip Roth has brought to the short novel since 2000. From The Dying Animal, his meditation on eros, to Everyman, his bleak study of death itself, Roth has compressed the thematic dynamism of his masterpieces—The Counterlife and Sabbath’s Theater—into tales which can be read in the time it takes you to watch a baseball game.

Indignation, Roth’s latest bravura performance in the form, is a haunting, bleakly comic time capsule of a book. Set in 1951 on the campus of a fictional Ohio university, Winesburg, it chronicles the events which led a young Jewish student named Marcus Messner to be expelled from school, drafted into the Korean War and killed on the battlefield. Marcus tells his tale from beyond the grave, in a kind of metaphysical limbo. Unable to appeal death, Marcus gnarls upon the series of tiny decisions which led to his demise.

His path, like that of so many Roth heroes, began with the desire to leave home, and snags on the betrayal embedded into that wish. The son of a kosher Newark butcher, Marcus grows up yanking the entrails from chicken carcasses: “You do what you have to do,” it teaches him. There are limits to this hardy compact, however, ones brought home by the death of two of Marcus’ cousins in World War II. Here, for Marcus, and especially for his father, is a sacrifice they will not make.

Artfully, elliptically, Indignation conjures the birth of an American generation for whom the specter of military service was, seemingly, an echo of the past, part of the country in which they lived but a part they would do their best to avoid. Roth represents this divide metaphorically. “I had learned everything about butchering that he could teach me,” Marcus says of his father. “But he never could teach me to like the blood or even to be indifferent to it.”

In this sense, Indignation may be a book full of righteous anger, but that anger is suspended in a climate of fear. Fear for his son’s life turns Marcus’ father’s embrace into a chokehold. And Marcus, fearful that he will fall out with his father, transfers to Winesburg, a rigorous school one tick down from the Ivies which still had quotas for Jewish students. If he can just get straight As and keep his college draft deferment, Marcus will dodge the fate of his cousins.

As soon as he arrives at Winesburg, however, obstructions to this plan emerge: a noisy roommate, an invasive dean, a weekly chapel requirement and a female student with a mysterious past, all wonderfully conjured by Roth. Trying to deal with them rationally, Marcus becomes as hysterical as his father, and once these tripwires are set, Indignation begins its masterful, inexorable windup.

Having decided there is one thing he will not do, Marcus finds others. He will not rush; he will not bow to a dean’s pressure; he will not let go of a woman he barely understands and hardly knows. Trying to bash his way forward, Marcus only makes matters worse. He is a great student, a principled individual, but utterly unprepared for the world’s entropic illogic, something more than 30,000 Americans—and countless Koreans and Chinese—would learn on the battlefield, too.