By Philip RothHoughton Mifflin
Before he decided to dispense entirely with the respect of his readership—which must have been, oh, some years ago now—Philip Roth used to try to balance the quotidian with a larger theme. In novels like I Married a Communist and The Plot Against America, he sought to mesh the “micro”—most usually the familiar world of Jewish angst in New Jersey—with the “macro”: the successive spasms of alarm and disorder that have punctuated modern American history.
In Indignation, he varies the procedure a little. Young Marcus Messner, in whose voice the book is narrated, is indeed an anxious Jewish youth from New Jersey, apprenticing in his father’s kosher butcher shop. But the action of the novel requires that he be deracinated and replanted in no less a setting than Winesburg, Ohio, “eighteen miles from Lake Erie and five hundred miles from our back door’s double lock.” His move is dictated by the need to escape his father’s demented overprotectiveness, a neurosis probably exacerbated by the rumors of a dreadful war in Korea. This conflict—the gruesome stories of its bayonet charges and hand-to-hand slaughter putting him again in mind of the family butchery—bears directly on Marcus, who is liable for the draft. He knows, having lost two cousins to infantry fighting in the Second World War, that grunts have much less chance of survival than junior officers. He is therefore enrolled in the ROTC. Meanwhile, he studies political science and American government and waits tables at a local inn.
It will not surprise you to learn that this urban Jewish boy’s existence in such a bucolic WASP world is occasionally fraught:
More than a few times during the first weeks, I thought I heard myself being summoned to one of the rowdier tables with the words “Hey, Jew! Over here!” But, preferring to believe the words spoken had been simply “Hey, you! Over here!” I persisted with my duties, determined to abide by the butcher-shop lesson learned from my father: slit the ass open and stick your hand up and grab the viscera and pull them out; nauseating and disgusting, but it had to be done.
In other words, Messner doesn’t quite have the knack of making things easy on himself. He quarrels with the Jewish boys with whom he is first made to room, and evinces a Holden Caulfield–like disdain for sharing with others at close quarters. Meanwhile, the reverses suffered by American forces in Korea, and the controversy over President Truman’s dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur, have the local consequence of making it imperative that he lose his virginity with all speed:
There—yet another goal: despite the trammels of convention still rigidly holding sway on the campus of a middling little midwestern college in the years immediately after World War Two, I was determined to have intercourse before I died.
The ordinariness of the prose here (“trammels holding sway” and all that) is matched by the familiarity of the Eros/Thanatos dialectic. But Roth takes things a step further, revealing that his narrator is speaking posthumously:
And even dead, as I am and have been for I don’t know how long, I try to reconstruct the mores that reigned over that campus and to recapitulate the troubled efforts to elude those mores that fostered the series of mishaps ending in my death at the age of nineteen.
Beginning with that rather breathless and rudderless sentence, Messner goes on to enlighten us by revealing that eternity is a constant hashing-over of the details of former existence. And which details might these tend to be? I think that I shall give away very little if I disclose that blow jobs and hand jobs, administered by a sweet but unstable shiksa, play a not inconsiderable part in Roth’s version of “memory cogitating for eons on itself.”