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The Nicest Boy in the World


by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 233 pp., $26.00

There ought to be behind the door of every happy, contented man some one standing with a hammer continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people; that however happy he may be, life will show him her claws sooner or later, trouble will come for him—disease, poverty, losses, and no one will see or hear, just as now he neither sees nor hears others.1

—Anton Chekhov

What do people think when they come across photographs in a newspaper of young men and women killed in Iraq? I take it for granted that they feel pity and horror that someone so young is no more, but it would be interesting to know just how far they venture to imagine the lives of the young as they read the few lines of biographical information that accompany the picture. Here’s Fred Something-or-Other, born in a small town out west, or in some city in the east, whose name and face recall someone we used to know in high school, looking at us, out of a photograph taken by the military, with the usual swagger of young men wearing a uniform. Many are making an effort to smile, some appear grim and determined, and only a few have the vulnerable, worried look of kids who think they might come back to their parents in a coffin.

The Pentagon’s ban on making images of dead soldiers’ homecomings and burials is intended to prevent us from turning into novelists for a moment, from speculating about their lives and the cause for which they died. This order of things, knowing nothing about the fate of others, is evidently necessary, Chekhov observes in one of his stories. What he has to say on that subject was true of the Russia of his day and is true of America today:

The happy man only feels at ease because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence, and without that silence happiness would be impossible.

It follows that what a writer must do is give a reader an occasional tap on the head and once in a while a good whack.

My fiction is about people in trouble,” Philip Roth told an interviewer after Goodbye Columbus received the National Book Award in 1960.2 Some of the characters in his novels and stories are in trouble because of their own flaws and the mess they’ve made of their lives, but many of them are either the victims or are in some way implicated in the history of their times. World War II, the McCarthy period, the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution of the 1960s, political terrorism, Watergate, the women’s movement, and even the administration of President George W. Bush all figure in his most recent books. More and more, in Roth’s fiction, history and the individual are interdependent. He writes about the experience and the accompanying moral conflicts of those left at the mercy of events and ideas over which they have no power, the kind of people for whom official history has no place while ideology, too, passes over them in silence. It’s no exaggeration to say that Roth has been appalled by what has happened politically to his country since the days of Nixon and Vietnam. As he says in an interview with The Paris Review:

Any satirist writing a futuristic novel who had imagined a President Reagan during the Eisenhower years would have been accused of perpetrating a piece of crude, contemptible, adolescent, anti-American wickedness, when, in fact, he would have succeeded, as prophetic sentry.3

A writer has to be driven crazy to help him see,” he also says in that interview. His powerful new novel, Indignation, seethes with outrage. It begins with a conflict between a father and son in a setting and circumstances long familiar from his other novels going back to Portnoy’s Complaint, but then turns into something unexpected: a deft, gripping, and deeply moving narrative about the short life of a decent, hardworking, and obedient boy who pays with his life for a brief episode of disobedience that leaves him unprotected and alone to face forces beyond his control in a world in which old men play with the lives of the young as if they were toy soldiers. Roth’s novels abound in comic moments, and so does Indignation. His compassion for his characters doesn’t prevent him from noting their foolishness. “Sheer Playfulness and Deadly Seriousness are my closest friends,” Roth said in an interview with Joyce Carol Oates back in 1974.4 Every tragic action casts a comic shadow, is how one may describe his view of life. His new novel, despite its many funny scenes, moves with the pace and inevitability of a tragedy.

The year is 1950. The Korean War has just started. Marcus Messner, the novel’s nineteen-year-old hero, an only child, is a freshman at a small college in downtown Newark and the first one in his family to seek a higher education. His father had to go to work when he was ten years old and never finished elementary school. Since then, he has risen in the world by becoming a moderately prosperous kosher butcher in the Jewish Weequahic section of Newark where Roth himself grew up. As the novel opens, he is starting to have financial worries since the first supermarket has opened a few blocks from his shop and his sales have fallen off. His son is of draft age, so the news of the heavy American casualties in Korea is a daily reminder that he may be inducted. With so much on his mind, his attitude toward his son suddenly changes. He bugs him day and night about his whereabouts, fearing that he may be hanging out with a bad crowd, doing something reckless, and getting himself in trouble. This all seems ludicrous to the boy, who has been a devoted son, an A student, and an uncomplaining, part-time helper in the family’s business. Formerly, he and his father had been very close, since he practically grew up in the butcher shop, where his mother also works.

As always in Roth’s novels, the occupation of his characters is all-important and is described in elaborate detail. In Indignation, we find out both what a butcher does and what a butcher looks like. “My father wore an apron that tied around the neck and around the back and it was always bloody, a fresh apron always smeared with blood within an hour after the store opened. My mother too was covered in blood,” Marcus says about his parents. When he reads in the papers about the GIs in Korea fighting with bayonets against the invading Chinese, he can picture what a murderously sharp blade can do to someone’s soft tissue.

During Marcus’s first semester at the commuter college, his father’s behavior becomes even more exasperating. He gets livid if his son is even twenty minutes late coming home at night and double-locks both the front and back doors so he can’t get in. The son can’t bear to be around his father anymore and transfers after his freshman year to Winesburg, a small Lutheran liberal arts and engineering college in the farm country of north-central Ohio, without quite knowing what he’s getting into. Set on a hillside with tall, shapely elm trees and ivy-covered buildings surrounding a quadrangle, it corresponds to every American’s idealized notion of what a college should look like. In truth, such places are not easy to adjust to if one has grown up in a big-city, lower-middle-class, ethnic neighborhood. The class disparities and the regional, cultural, and religious differences, which our society pretends are not a cause of serious friction, come into play much more in the claustrophobic world of a small college than they do in an urban university. One finds oneself among people with whom one has nothing in common, and either manages to get along with them or does not.

Marcus is assigned to a dorm where he has to share a room with three other boys, though he had expected to have only a single roommate. They are all Jews, and that is a disappointment to him since he had hoped to find out what living among non-Jews was like. Nevertheless, he is determined to do well and justify his father’s expense of sending him to a college in Ohio rather than in Newark. He studies hard, but he’s pressed for time since he works as a waiter Friday and Saturday nights in a beer joint frequented by students, and one of his roommates is preventing him from getting his rest by playing records late into the night. Within days of arriving at the campus, Marcus is looking around the dorm for someone with an empty bunk. His new roommate is a local Ohio boy, but another loner, laconic and not very friendly, who spends his time studying, and who as a senior is allowed to have a car. Living with him, Marcus says, is like living alone.

Still, all these small annoyances are nothing compared to being in the Korean War, where US casualties are already more than one hundred thousand and where the Chinese are attacking our positions in waves impervious to our superior firepower, so that our soldiers often have to fight them off in hand-to-hand combat. Marcus appreciates what may befall him if the war continues, so he works hard, refusing to join a fraternity or to play sports, often staying up till 2 AM in order to finish his next day’s homework.

What eventually distracts him from his studies is that he catches sight of a pretty girl one night in the library and immediately falls for her. He borrows his roommate’s car and takes her out on a date. They go to a French restaurant, have a swell evening, and on the way back to the campus stop on the road alongside the town cemetery. What happens next stuns Marcus, who’s never had any experience of sex. His date, Olivia, unbuttons his pants and proceeds to suck him off. As far as he knows, young girls are not supposed to be fired with lust like that. It’s because her parents are divorced, he tells himself idiotically afterward. The next time she shows up in their history class, she sits next to him as if nothing had happened. Marcus, however, can’t stop thinking about it. Her obvious proficiency suggests that this was not her first time. He doesn’t ask her out on a date again, but they exchange a series of heated letters in which he demands to know what made her do it and how many others there were before him and she tells him that she did it simply because she liked him.

Olivia has a scar across the width of her wrist that Marcus noticed the first night. In a letter in which she informs him that she’s breaking off with him, she tells him that she tried to kill herself at the previous school she was attending and that she had spent three months in a clinic before coming to Winesburg. The upshot of this affair with the kind of girl his father feared he’d meet someday is that he can’t concentrate on his schoolwork. He’s still in love with her and quarrels with his roommate, who calls Olivia a cunt after Marcus confides to him what happened between them in his car. Marcus moves out to a room in another dorm where he’s finally alone. To his surprise, he receives a letter from the dean wondering about his need to move so frequently and requesting that he come and see him.

  1. 1

    Gooseberries,” in The Wife and Other Stories, translated by Constance Garnett (Ecco, 1985), p. 283.

  2. 2

    The NBA Winner Talks Back,” The New York Post Magazine, April 3, 1960.

  3. 3

    The Art of Fiction, No. 84,” The Paris Review, Fall 1984.

  4. 4

    After Eight Books,” in Reading Myself and Others (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), p. 111.

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