I’m only on the second chapter of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, but I have to say it’s already the best book I’ve read in quite a while. I’ve only read one Roth book before: Portnoy’s Complaint, written some 35 years before The Plot Against America, and I’m finding it fascinating how clearly Roth has matured as a writer in that time. I liked Portnoy’s Complaint a lot, but it also bothered me a little with its out-and-out misogyny and immaturity. (That was part of what made it a great book, though — it was challenging in the most literal sense of the word, and I don’t think it approved of Portnoy’s behavior.) Both Portnoy and the protagonist of The Plot Against America are essentially Philip Roth — in fact, the Plot character is named Philip Roth and shares the real Roth’s childhood — but while Portnoy loathes and resents his mother, for instance, the fictional Roth seems to have a deep affection for her. I wonder whether that isn’t partly because she’s now been dead for years, whereas I imagine she was alive and nagging in the mid-’60s. But I’m sure it’s also because the guy has just grown up.
The Plot Against America is already one of the best and, importantly, most convincing alternate histories I’ve ever read. Everything in the book so far could plausibly have happened had the cards fallen a little differently. It’s set in 1940, when war has broken out across Europe for the second time in a generation and America seems destined to join it. But instead of Franklin D. Roosevelt winning a third term and the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor in 1941, the desperate Republicans nominate American hero, isolationist and anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh for the presidency. He beats FDR handily on a “Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War” platform, immediately signs pacts of “understanding” with Germany and Japan, and American society takes a very dark and scary turn toward proto-fascism. The whole thing is based around Roth’s actual childhood in Newark, N.J., and it seems like all the details are real except for those that had to be made up for the sake of historical invention. It takes talent to write such involving fiction.
I’m not sure why it’s taken me this long to read another Philip Roth book, but regardless of how this one turns out, I definitely won’t wait so long before the next one. Especially not because I found The Human Stain discarded in the basement last week along with The Rules, Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul and various tomes about alcoholism and addiction. Score!