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The Nicest Boy in the World

Indignation

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.

The meeting with the dean turns out to be the onset of his ruin. It is scheduled just after chapel, at which attendance is required of all students. As Roth explains, the religious content of the sermons was camouflaged as talk on high moral topics and the speakers were not always clergymen. Still, Marcus objects strongly to having to attend, not because he’s an observant Jew, but because he’s a convinced and passionate atheist. He’s not going to compromise his conscience by listening to biblical hogwash, and so at the urging of another student from Newark, he will eventually hire someone to sign the attendance sheet for him while he stays in his room studying—a clever city boy’s maneuver that will have consequences.

At this first interview, the dean commends his academic record, asks him how he likes his teachers, wants to know if he’s socializing enough, and then queries him about the trouble he’s having adjusting to dormitory life. Marcus tries to explain that he was not able to get adequate sleep with records being played all night long, but Dean Caldwell, an elderly, tall, lean, broad-shouldered man with a heavy crest of silver hair, accuses him of being incapable of compromising with a fellow student. This long scene is one of the best in the book: the conflict mounts between authority bent on exacting its version of events and demanding complete obedience versus the obstinate young boy who risks his future because he insists on his version of events. Marcus is humiliated and irritated that he’s being grilled for something as petty as moving from one dormitory room to another in order to find peace of mind so that he can do his homework. Why isn’t having good grades and good conduct sufficient, he wonders?

The dean angers him even further by asking him why, since his father is a kosher butcher, Marcus didn’t write “Jewish” under religious preferences. “Because I have none,” he replies. “I’m sustained by what is real and not by what is imaginary,” he informs the dean proudly. What’s more, he doesn’t need sermons by professional moralists to advise him how to lead a moral existence. He tells the dean that when he was the captain of his high school debating team, he memorized an essay by Bertrand Russell called “Why I Am Not a Christian,” and urges the dean, in the interest of open-mindedness, to read it. In the meantime, he gives him a lengthy summary of its main points while growing more and more excited as he does, finally becoming so reckless that he bangs his fist on the older man’s desk to make a point.

What the dean understands from this rant is that Marcus is as intolerant of organized religion as he is intolerant of his roommates and their individual habits. He admires Marcus’s fighting spirit, he claims, but is troubled that he should choose to harness it to a cause espoused by someone whom the American government regards as a criminal subversive. He sees Marcus as an intellectually precocious youngster, a perpetual malcontent, a self-appointed member of an elite who needs to elevate himself and feel superior to his fellow students, who rejects long-standing traditions like chapel attendance, and who is therefore poorly fit to be a member of the Winesburg College community. Instead of just shutting up or apologizing, Marcus responds by scolding the dean that his objection to Bertrand Russell was not an argument against his ideas, but an argument against character appealing to prejudice—and then, all of a sudden, he vomits, luckily not on the man, but on his desk.

How had I gotten myself into trouble, I who’d never before been in trouble in all my life?, Marcus asks himself, knowing well that the Messners are a family of shouters and screamers, a family of putting their foot down and banging their heads against the wall. What he doesn’t know at that moment is that he’s coming down with appendicitis. Later that night he’s taken to the hospital where he’s operated on and his appendix is removed.

His first visitor is Olivia, who looks great. Marcus is aroused and pulls back the sheet to show her how much. They are surprised by a nurse who hurries out of the room, but the next day they are at it again. To Olivia, whose father is a doctor, Marcus is something on the order of a child of a snake charmer or a circus performer, while she to him is something equally exotic. She asks him to tell her what it was like growing up as a butcher’s son and he obliges, but when he inquires about her family, she pleads with him to be tactful. “Lucky Marcus” is her conclusion after hearing about his background.

His mother, too, comes to visit him in the hospital. A tall, heavyset woman, tough and capable, she’s worried sick by her husband’s progressively odd behavior. She tells her son:

Markie, I think he’s losing his mind. I don’t know what else to call it…. Your father, who could confront any hardship in the family, survive any ordeal with the store, be pleasant to the worst of the customers—even after we were robbed that time and the thieves locked him in the refrigerator and emptied the register, you remember how he said, “The money we can replace. Thank God nothing happened to any of us.” The same man who could say that, and believe that, now he can’t do anything without million worries.

He drives like a madman, argues with everybody, is rude to his customers, Marcus’s mother reports. They lie in bed at night and he hollers at the ceiling, wondering whether his son is in a whorehouse or squandering his life in some other way. In short, he’s become impossible to live with. She tells Marcus that she has already seen a lawyer and is preparing to divorce his father. This is a great shock to him since breaking up a family like that was something unheard of in their neighborhood. What accounts for his father’s inexplicable transformation is that he can’t help feeling that something bad is about to happen to his son.

His mother and Olivia meet in the hospital room and have a polite conversation. The next day, his mother tells Marcus that for his sake she has decided not to divorce his father, but that she now wants something from him in return: that he have nothing more to do with Olivia. A person so unstable as to slit her wrists will be a menace to him, she’s sure. You are here, she says, so you don’t have to be a butcher like your father and grandfather, but a person other people look up to in a community. Marcus agrees to stop seeing Olivia, and yet once he’s back on campus, he searches for her everywhere while in his mind composing letters to her, saying his mother was right, she is a goddess—and who deserts a goddess because his mother tells him to?

Still, Olivia is nowhere to be found. She appears to have left school under mysterious circumstances. What if she tried to kill herself and succeeded? Marcus wonders. After trying everything he can think of to find her, he goes to see the dean and asks him if he knows anything about Olivia. Nobody will say what happened to her, he tells the man, and he fears that he may have had something to do with it. “Did you impregnate this young lady, Marcus?” the dean wants to know. When Marcus vehemently denies doing so, the dean informs him that a member of the hospital staff had witnessed sordid things going on between them. In any case, Olivia is pregnant, has had a nervous breakdown, and has been taken by ambulance to a psychiatric clinic. “It’s not me,” Marcus, who is still a virgin, insists. The dean is not persuaded. “Given all we now know, that’s also hard to believe,” he says, since in the meantime he has discovered that Marcus has been paying another student to attend chapel for him. At this point, the embattled young man, who like other Roth characters gets in trouble because of his big mouth, explodes and tells the dean to go fuck himself.

That night there’s a blizzard and a riot on the campus. What starts as a snowball fight among a few students on the empty quadrangle degenerates into a drunken free-for-all and an attack on girls’ residence halls. The rioters ransack their rooms in search of every pair of panties they can find and throw them out the windows. Since the snow is very deep, the police can’t get through and the riot continues unabated until the dean shows up and puts a stop to it. Next morning the reckoning begins, so that by nightfall eleven students are permanently expelled. Anyone called before the dean who denies participating in the panty raid and who is subsequently discovered to be lying is summarily expelled as well. Not even Marcus, who had nothing to do with any of it, is spared in the general sweep; he then becomes subject to the draft and, without a college degree, fodder for combat.

What makes all these fairly ordinary, youthful peccadilloes poignant and in the end tragic is that halfway through the novel we find out that the narrator is telling us all this while lying at the point of death in Korea. After being repeatedly stabbed with a bayonet until he has had one leg severed from his torso and his intestines and genitals hacked to bits, Marcus has been given morphine, which has put him in a state of deepest unconsciousness without suppressing his mental process. Three months short of his twentieth birthday, shortly after dawn on March 31, 1952, his brain shuts down and his morphine-induced recollections come to an end. The following day, two soldiers come to the door of his parents’ Newark apartment and inform them that their beloved son has been killed in combat.

Anyone living in the 1950s could imagine such a destiny. I did, though I’m five years younger than Roth, who was seventeen when the war started. An innocent boy who dies in a war has been such a common occurrence in the history of the world that calling it a tragedy doesn’t carry much conviction. We keep sacrificing the young, supposedly for the noblest of causes, and expect their grief-stricken parents to accept that and be proud of their sacrifice, so the rest of us can sleep well at night. With that in mind, the most moving figure in Roth’s book for me is the father, a soul in agony, who like some blind prophet of old, a portly, chain-smoking Tiresias, sees doom coming where others see only a fine young fellow leaving home for college. His son Marcus is another of Roth’s “good boys” turned into a defiant young man who comes up against some rigid moral code or some authority figure that misuses its power. He resists both his father’s and his college dean’s definition of himself and that thoroughly understandable and admirable act of independence leads to lethal consequences.

Roth doesn’t have to spell out the implication of this Korean War story for today’s readers. In case we missed it, there are the words of the president of the college, who addresses the students following the riot. He says to them:

Beyond your dormitories, a world is on fire and you are kindled by underwear. Beyond your fraternities, history unfolds daily—warfare, bombings, wholesale slaughter, and you are oblivious of it all. Well, you won’t be oblivious for long! You can be as stupid as you like, can even give every sign, as you did here on Friday night, of passionately wanting to be stupid, but history will catch you in the end. Because history is not the background—history is the stage! And you are on the stage! Oh, how sickening is your appalling ignorance of your own times! Most sickening of all is that it is just that ignorance that you are purportedly at Winesburg to expunge. What kind of a time do you think you belong to, anyway? Can you answer? Do you know ? Do you have any idea that you belong to a time at all ?

In his famous essay “Writing American Fiction,” written back in 1960, Roth spoke about the difficulty of writing credibly about the time we live in. “It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s meager imagination.” As his new book and his many other novels show, it can be done by a master.

  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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