The Plot Against America
Philip Roth’s astonishing, disquieting new novel proposes a horrific but not implausible series of what-ifs: What if the United States had not supported the Allies in World War II? What if famed and beloved aviator Charles Lindbergh had run for president and won? What if, instead of battling fascism in Europe and Asia, we found ourselves saddled with its tyranny on our own soil?
The book’s most obvious antecedent is Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, which, at the time of its release in 1935, stood as a grave warning of the terrifying ease with which a charismatic leader could drive America into fascism’s waiting arms. Roth replaces Lewis’ fictional Buzz Windrip with the real Lindbergh, but the inexorable rise to power follows the same trajectory: Americans, sick with despair over the hardships of the Great Depression and fearful of being drawn into yet another vicious, bloody European conflict, are soothed by the leader’s promises of prosperity and security. Their suspicion of immigrants and their latent—and not so latent—prejudices are expertly exploited. They are given a scapegoat, and a monster is swept into office by adoring, frenzied masses. The most frightening thing about Roth’s alternate universe is how reasonably it could have been reality—Lindbergh’s own racist, anti-Semitic views ran uncomfortably close to those of Adolf Hitler, who awarded him the Service Cross of the German Eagle in 1938. Nor did Lindbergh make any secret of these views—he aired them publicly, sometimes to cheering crowds. The historical truths with which Roth built his fiction are outlined in the book’s thick, informative postscript, pages that make clear the bullet history allowed us to dodge.
But Roth embeds all of these ideas in a compellingly personal narrative. The Plot Against America is narrated as a memoir, by a parallel Philip Roth, his family lifted straight out of the author’s own history, providing a solid human underscore that gives the novel enormous emotional weight. The tender, exact treatment given his family is surely the mark of a man older and wiser than the man who wrote Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth’s hilarious but incendiary account of a young man’s struggles against his family, his insatiable sexuality, and his own Jewishness. In resurrecting his family against the backdrop of an America that could have been, Roth has brought off an astounding feat, coming full circle to cap off his literary career to date with a masterpiece.