‘Indignation’ by Philip Roth

Indignation book coverMy enthusiasm for the storytelling prose of Philip Roth has only been increased by reading Indignation (London: Jonathan Cape, 2008).

As it begins, the story of young Marcus Messner, son of a kosher butcher in Newark NJ, is archetypal Roth. A young Jewish protagonist exploring the boundaries of his life and propelled by a desire for intercourse before he dies. His father has begun arguing with him all the time and saying that unless Marcus does what he tells him then he will land in the deepest trouble in the world out there. Such have been the rows that Marcus has quit Robert Treat college in Newark where some of the exciting teachers came out from New York to stir his imagination and moved to Winesburg, a Mid-Western liberal arts college in north-central Ohio, fifteen miles from Lake Erie where there are only a handful of Jews. All he wants is to get straight As and graduate so that, if he were to be drafted to fight in the war then raging on the Korean peninsula, he would do so as a junior officer rather than a private. This, he reckons, would enhance his chances of surviving.

The account of his difficulties at Winesburg is interspersed with his back story as a willing helper in his father’s butcher’s shop as a growing boy. He quarrels with his roommates and changes dormitories. Then he plucks up courage to date a gorgeous blonde Gentile who allows him, and who takes, such physical liberties that he is totally smitten.   The solicitous Dean of Men enquires whether he has a problem with relationships after those quarrels with his fellow students. There is a gloriously scripted row with the Dean which suddenly ends when Marcus throws up on the Dean’s carpet. It turns out he has appendicitis and, post-operation, he is visited in hospital by his femme fatale and, not long after, by his mother who makes him promise to give her up. Then tumultuous events that follow a heavy, Mid-Western snow storm make all that has gone before rather irrelevant.

However, on the way to that point in the story, Roth has slipped in a cryptic piece of information on page 54 that completely alters the reader’s perspective on the novel. With this blog’s strict no-spoiler rule, I cannot even hint what that is but the rest of the book charts the inevitable decline and fall of Marcus Messner. Indignation has all the characteristics of a ‘Jewish’ Greek tragedy.

By opening a window onto the several different Americas that, to this day, co-exist within the United States; by presenting the attitudes that prevailed during the early 1950s and the Korean War; and by painting a lucid account of one young man’s growing up pains, Roth has written a valuable social document as well as an immensely readable novel.

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