Nasty, Brutish, and Short

The narrator of Roth’s Indignation may die off early and horribly—but it’s the reader of this adolescent work who ought to feel the most outraged.

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.”

At all events, at about the one-fifth mark in the novel’s progress, we are abruptly made aware that Marcus Messner isn’t going to make it, and indeed hasn’t made it. How does he, as unreliable, not to say inanimate, narrator, contrive to fill the remaining time? Apart from a brief and sordid dalliance with the aforementioned shiksa—who is called Olivia and who turns out to have suicidal tendencies—he engages in warfare against the compulsory Christianity of the college. It has, apparently, come as a complete shock to him to learn that chapel attendance is mandatory and that he must listen to sermons and hymns. His outrage gives us the key to the book’s title. As a mantra with which to ward off the cadences of the Baptists, he sings to himself the Chinese national anthem, which he was taught as a patriotic duty during grade school in the Second World War. A stave of it goes: “Indignation fills the hearts of all our countrymen, / Arise! Arise! Arise!” and Messner finds the four-beat word Indignation to be especially heartening in his Kulturkampf with the dean of men. At one stage he quotes almost verbatim and at length from Bertrand Russell’s celebrated polemic “Why I Am Not a Christian”; one might wonder how a young man so determinedly and militantly agnostic would not have taken better care not to attend a piously Christian school.

The stress of all this helps to land Marcus in the infirmary, where his mother—already a martyr to her husband’s paranoia—comes to visit. Her emotional lecture makes one inquire if there is not supposed to be something onomatopoeic about the boy’s surname. “You are here” at Winesburg, she insists, “so you don’t have to be a Messner like your grandfather and your father and your cousins and work in a butcher shop for the rest of your life.” Then, later, after she has reproached him for keeping company with the wrist-slashing Olivia:

You are a Messner like all the Messners … The Messners aren’t just a family of butchers. They’re a family of shouters and a family of screamers and a family of putting their foot down and banging their heads against the wall, and now, out of the blue, your father is as bad as the rest of them.

A couple of pungent throwbacks to Portnoy—including a nasty scene with a piece of liver (though not as explicit as Alex’s imperishable encounter with that viscous telltale organ) and a vivid episode of self-abuse involving a sock —persuade me that a messy name is indeed part of the drab psychoanalytic furniture of this rather knocked-together novelette.

Indeed, it’s almost because of the involuntary mess that Marcus makes by vomiting in the dean’s office, and the deliberate mess made of Marcus’s clothes and belongings by a gruesomely insanitary roommate, that the climax of the tale becomes a weird blend of the dirty and the purgative: a sniggering panty raid that gets out of hand, but one that takes place in a white and obliterating blizzard. The male student body—if that’s the right term—of Winesburg takes leave of its collective senses and launches a sort of underwear pogrom that goes on for pages:

“Panties! Panties! Panties!” The word, still as inflammatory for them as college students as it had been at the onset of puberty, constituted the whole of the cheer exultantly repeated from below … Among the myriad objects seen dropping from the open windows that night were brassieres, girdles, sanitary napkins, ointment tubes, lipsticks, slips and half-slips, nighties …

Reviewing Roth’s Exit Ghost in these pages some months ago, I speculated that he sometimes urged his flagging prose along by giving himself something to jerk off about: in extremis, the very word panties was enough to bring young Alexander Portnoy to the sorry peak of yet another shuddering and solitary ejaculation. I lost count of the number of times Roth summoned the same magic term in this, the most hard-working and hard-worked passage of his latest book. So much effort, alas, for such scant effect.

The closing pages are by turns bizarre and strenuous, and in a manner that took me some time to decipher. As order regains its throne at Winesburg, and the young men succumb to a shamefaced realization of what they have done, Messner shouts out to his parents and his girlfriend, only to understand that he is now beyond the veil and has no audience:

There is only myself to address about my innocence, my explosions, my candor, and the extreme brevity of bliss in the first true year of my young manhood and the last year of my life. The urge to be heard, and nobody to hear me! I am dead. The unpronounceable sentence pronounced.

If I am not wrong, this is an allusion or hommage to Dalton Trumbo’s antiwar classic, Johnny Got His Gun, wherein a maimed soldier, rigidly comatose, is agonizingly aware of his surroundings while utterly unable to communicate even a hint of his own sentience to those around his bed. Our last glimpse of Marcus Messner is of a butchered figure, alive only in a morphine-induced dream, lying moribund on a Korean hillside that has just been stormed by Chinese soldiers yelling the “Indignation” anthem.

Roth gives the best lines in valediction to a pro-war speechmaker, the unpolished Republican pol Albin Lentz, who is the president of Winesburg College. Addressing his chastened male students in the aftermath of the panty scandal, Lentz showers them with scorn and contempt and compares their easy and silly hedonistic life to the Spartan tasks that await American manhood in the war against Communism. Here, Thanatos is being positively deployed against Eros. It’s quite clear from the context that Roth doesn’t in the least approve of Lentz’s sentiments, so it is all the more impressive that he awards him so much honor and gives such space to his grapeshot rhetoric.

Finally, a conundrum. Sherwood Anderson actually grew up in, and wrote about, the town of Clyde, Ohio, but his miniatures and microcosms were collectively titled Winesburg, and I shall be obliged to any reader who can make any suggestion as to why Roth chose to pick this of all midwestern towns as his setting. Writing about Anderson, John Updike was put in mind of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which demonstrated that “small-town people think a lot about the universe (as opposed to city people, who think only about each other).” And E.M. Forster said that Winesburg’s characters “live and breathe: they are beautiful.” It was perhaps incautious of Roth to booby-trap this very slight novel with clues to more serious and moving work by others. The characters in Indignation are for the most part thin and flimsy, and the contrived relationship between the local and the cosmic, or the local and the global, finally manages only to produce a mainly storm-in-a-teacup effect.