INDIGNATION by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin, September 16, 2008)
Review by Nancy Yanes-Hoffman, THE WRITING DOCTOR, at www.writingdoctor.typepad.com, email: email@example.com,
16 San Rafael Drive, Rochester NY 14618
I’ve read INDIGNATION , Philip Roth’s 29th novel, three times. I think I’ve figured it out. Maybe.
Ever since his first novel, GOODBYE COLUMBUS burst on the literary scene, Philip Roth has been an American must-read phenomenon. Singularly autobiographical, mainly honing in on writers or other luft-menschen as central characters, Roth wrote of young and horny protagonists when he was young. They got older when age caught him in its tentacles.
Now 76, Roth recently seems galvanized by a new burst of energy, publishing a new book almost every year. The list of his prizes is endless. From Pulitzer to the National Medal of Arts, the Gold Medal in Fiction, the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle award. Only the Nobel is missing.
But INDIGNATION is a far cry from Roth’s latest pattern. Roth’s last two books, the brilliant, moving EVERYMAN, and the disappointing EXIT GHOST confront the terrifying abyss of aging and dying. INDIGNATION is also about death, but its prime mover, Marcus Messner dies “three months short of his twentieth birthday,” killed in the Korean War. Messner’s death is an appointment in Samarra. He’s caught by that which he would escape.
What kills Marcus? Whose fault is it that Marcus is killed before he can grow up, dead in that long-forgotten, much-neglected Korean War? Is it his paranoid, over-protective father who imagines death—and sex--at every corner? Is it Marcus’s flight from Newark to college in Winesburg, Ohio, to run from his father’s rages?
(Just why Winesburg, the site of Sherwood Anderson’s brilliant group short stories, is Marcus’s unforgiving escape hatch remains one of the mysteries of his tortured tale).
Marcus’s father is one of Roth’s love-hate fathers, who drives him away from his bloody, kosher butcher shop to the obviously, “goyish” Ohio world where he can’t find a congenial roommate, where the anti-Semitic fraternities ban him. And where chapel attendance is required. What he does find is a sexually adept, “Blowjob Queen” in the psychologically scarified Olivia Hutton, whom he learns to love despite his mother’s protests. Castigated by the Republican, Red-baiting president of the college for his unwillingness to belong, for his quoting of Bertrand Russell to the dean, Marcus is thrown out of school—only to be drafted, the one thing he was fighting against.
Letting Marcus tell his story from the grave, Roth finally answers the crucial question in the novel’s last paragraph of what—or who—killed “Marcus Messner, 1932-1952, the only one of his classmates unfortunate enough to be killed in the Korean War, which ended with the signing of an armistice agreement on July 27, 1953, eleven full months before Marcus, had he been able to stomach chapel and keep his mouth shut, would have received his undergraduate degree from Winesburg College—more than likely as class valedictorian—and thus postponed learning what his uneducated father had been trying so hard to teach him all along: of the terrible, the incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.”
It is, then, Marcus himself, his father, his unwelcoming Winesburg, Ohio school, his warring with the college president (and vomiting all over the dean), that lands him in Korea to meet his death. For Marcus’s story depicts the powerlessness of individuals as they try to run from their fates—only to embrace their destinies. No matter what their age, Marcus's impassioned, irrational father was right. Death does lurk just around the corner in Roth’s Samarra. And perhaps in our own as well.