Philip Roth has been obsessed with the process of aging for years. In The Anatomy Lesson, his protagonist develops mysterious ailments of no known origin and of crippling intensity. In Patrimony, he relates the story of his father’s life and prolonged death with the kind of honesty you’d only expect to find in a personal journal. Exit Ghost finds Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s frequently used alter ego, rekindling a friendship first developed in The Ghost Writer, except this time the beautiful young woman from his past has transformed into a frail old lady with serious health issues. And in Everyman, the unnamed hero’s life is punctuated by meticulously detailed trips to the hospital. If sex and Jewish identities are two of Roth’s main interests, human impermanence is a close third.
His new book, The Humbling, yet to be released, is about, what else, an old man’s sexual reawakening. Nothing new there, perhaps – except that in between Everyman and The Humbling, Roth released a little novel potentially of great interest to those committed to call Roth a one- or two-trick literary pony. Indignation, the story of a young Jew in a predominantly Christian college during the Korean war, is typically Rothian but also refreshing and unexpectedly moving. Here the cynicism and blasé pronouncements of the elder Roth are replaced by the musings of a sensitive boy who is determined to escape the fighting in Korea. A virgin, acutely naïve and kind-hearted, Marcus Messner is in some ways the anti-Roth, the horny semi-misanthropic writer portrayed in the Zuckerman novels.
This is a great change, and one which suits Roth well. Indignation, for all of its flaws, is one of the most touching stories to have come from Roth lately. Marcus’s reluctance to join the army drives him to leave Newark for college in Ohio. There he strikes up a friendship with a disturbed young girl, Olivia, who fellates him on their first date. From this point on, Marcus’s fate is sealed. In his attempts to communicate with Olivia, whose erratic behavior becomes increasingly unpredictable, he only manages to make things worse. As the novel progresses, we can’t help but pity both her and Marcus, the former for her fragility, the latter for his innocence.
Indignation, however is as political as anything else. With such a youthful cast of characters, and in a setting so dismal as 1950s America, the titular indignation is rampant. Roth’s left-wing sympathies are no secret, but his achievement here is in fighting the system with passion rather than rancor. His protagonist is too inexperienced to feel hatred, but his indignation at the way things work – having to attend Christian services, being Jewish in an unaccommodating world, repressed sexuality – is genuine. This is a story for those who have wondered things are as they are, and how come nobody seems able to change anything.
The novel isn’t perfect, however. The ending is not exactly an ending, but rather a twist filled with a lot of ranting. The rant is powerful and in the spirit of the book, but it is Roth’s rant, not Marcus’s. This authorial intrusion will put off some readers, particularly as it comes seemingly out of nowhere. I won’t reveal the twist here, but I will warn those who want total denouement in a story that this doesn’t happen here. The novel ends on a note of rage: moving, appropriate and perhaps even well-timed, but not pleasant and certainly not satisfying if you think story should come first. Nevertheless, this is a novel I recommend to those who have never read Roth, as well as to readers who had previously given up on him. Marcus Messner is a lovely character, a tragic creation, and the sort of narrator that more books should boast. This is a more mature, subtler Catcher in the Rye, for an audience whose disillusionment hasn’t yet spelled the death of hope for a more sensible American society.