Early on in Philip Roth’s imagining of America as it might have been if Charles Lindbergh had defeated Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 and become president, Roth’s father, Herman, his mother, Bess, his older brother, Sandy, and himself, Philip, 8 years old, make a trip to Washington, D.C. They are about to discover that, as a small Jewish family, they are a twig in a fascist sea.
By this time President Lindbergh -- elected on his slogan “Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War,” who in the 1930s emerged as a political figure and as an admirer of Hitler, who proudly wears the Nazi Service Cross of the German Eagle, and publicly attacks America’s Jews for supposedly maneuvering the country into joining the European war and for being a traitorous class loyal not to the United States but only to themselves -- has already signed ententes with Germany and with Japan. He accepts the Axis conquests of Europe and Asia and leaves Britain to its fate. Shaped as a memoir, “The Plot Against America” looks back on this invented history through the prism of a young boy’s experience and his family’s loss of all of their assumptions about its place in the world -- and as Philip’s family leaves its Jewish neighborhood in Newark, N.J., Roth, today, at once imagines and remembers: “The only ones against [Lindbergh], the people said, are the Jews.”
So four people drive into the heart of a nation that is in the process of casting them out of itself: to erase them from its story, to deny them any chance to claim it as their own. That’s not how Roth’s parents, and Philip, who has brought his stamp collection with him, with all of its pictures of national heroes and monuments, see it as they arrive; they have come to prove that they do belong. They are American-born. They are patriots. They are passionately caught up in the great public issues of the day, and for them the great issues of the American past are alive in the present. Like anybody else, they think, they are the American story -- without America they would have no story worth telling, even to themselves. And, right here, Roth -- the person writing -- raises the stakes as high as a patriotic novel can take them. In their days in and around the capitol, their hotel reservations will be canceled. “Loudmouth Jew,” they will hear, and then they will hear it again. But now, they are simply driving into town. “Immediately upon entering Washington,” Roth writes,
we made a wrong turn in the heavy traffic, and while my mother was trying to read the road map and direct my father to our hotel, there appeared before us the biggest white thing I had ever seen. Atop an incline at the end of the street stood the U.S. Capitol, the broad stairs sweeping upward to the colonnade and capped by the elaborate three-tiered dome. Inadvertently, we had driven right to the very heart of American history, and whether we knew it in so many words, it was American history, delineated in its most inspirational form, that we were counting on to protect us against Lindbergh.
As the story unfolds -- and as the plot in the novel’s title takes shape and shifts shape, the betrayal of the nation for a moment coming into focus, then almost dissolving in tales of conspiracy too baroque to believe (even though, until they are put on the page, you will have believed every word that came before, and so wonder, “Well, why not? What’s the better explanation?”) -- the reader will realize that it is not that simple, and that there is no protection.
Unlike Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel “It Can’t Happen Here,” in which a Democratic senator takes the nomination from FDR in 1936 and is elected president on a platform promising the suspension of the Constitution and the immediate imposition of a racist, fascist dictatorship, Roth moves his story forward very slowly, inch by inch. Detail accumulates, reality builds, people accommodate themselves to it, and when this reality is violated people try to accommodate themselves once more, and then reality refuses to accommodate itself to them. For Herman Roth, the alterations in the country -- for one, Lindbergh’s creation of the Office of American Absorption, meant to make “emerging Americans,” that is, Jews, into real Americans, or to scatter Jewish communities, divide Jewish families and mark off those few whose innate skills in finance and manipulation might be useful from the majority who will not be -- seem unimaginably threatening and definitively un-American; but he tries to make sense of them. To Roth’s brother Sandy, who becomes an Absorption poster boy, the changes are thrilling. To the country at large, they are of no account, because for real Americans life goes on as before, and the nation is not at war.
The real horror in the story, Roth knows, is to make it all seem reasonable, irresistible, seductive, so that anyone who stands up to say no will speak not as a hero but as a madman. After all, the real-life Lindbergh was not just a Nazi sympathizer, or even, given the chance, a traitor. He was not only a racist and an anti-Semite. Because, lifting off in the Spirit of St. Louis from Roosevelt Field on Long Island on May 20, 1927, and landing at Bourget Field in Paris 33 hours later, in the first solo flight ever made across the Atlantic Ocean, Lindbergh became a singular American hero: part Babe Ruth (who in that same year hit 60 home runs and made that number magic) and part cowboy, part Douglas Fairbanks and part Sgt. York.
In the presidential campaign of 1940, Roth remembers Roosevelt speaking; he remembers the Roosevelt who was passed on to him throughout his childhood by his parents -- someone, his parents explained, who in his patrician words fought fear and gave hope. “There was something about the inherent decorum of the delivery that, alien though it was, not only calmed our anxiety but bestowed on our family a historical significance, authoritatively merging our lives with his as well as with that of the entire nation when he addressed us in our living room as his ‘fellow citizens.’ ”
But Lindbergh was himself “American history delineated in its most inspirational form.” His pilot’s jacket, the cut of his jaw, his hair blowing in the wind and his own story. His charmed marriage to Anne Morrow Lindbergh. The celebrated birth of their first child, a son, in 1930. The boy’s kidnapping and murder. The trial and execution of Bruno Hauptmann. The man of lightning struck by it: “The boldness of the world’s first transatlantic solo pilot,” Roth writes, “had been permeated with a pathos that transformed him into a martyred titan comparable to Lincoln.” He was “normalcy raised to heroic proportions, a decent man with an honest face and an undistinguished voice who had resoundingly demonstrated to the entire planet the courage to take charge and the fortitude to shape history.” Against Roosevelt’s radio community, Lindbergh was the man alone, not only able to shape history but free from history, as the heroes of the past seem to rise out of history and hover over it. A hero, and a martyr -- and who could be more dangerous than a living martyr? Especially a living martyr who knows how to tell his story better than any novelist, except one as gleeful in his imagination as Roth?
“The Plot Against America” may join “It Can’t Happen Here” (“It can’t happen here?” says Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York, in 1942. “My friends, it is happening here.” ) and Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” a 1962 novel set in an America defeated in World War II (the big holiday is Capitulation Day) and now partitioned between Japan and Germany. It may be plumbed in years to come as a cautionary tale about the fragility of the democratic spirit in America or as a metaphorical rendering of the United States and its president today. After Roth’s death, when his supremacy as the most commanding novelist of his time will suddenly seem easily questionable, it may be dismissed as the paranoid fantasy of a Jew who, it will then be possible to say, had Jews on the brain -- a very distinguished ethnic novelist who was not, perhaps, an American novelist at all. In the canon of Roth’s novels, “The Plot Against America” may come to seem slight, like, it might be said, the “South Park” episode “The Passion of the Jew” (after seeing Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” a Nazi Cartman rallies the town to avenge Jesus) or Roth’s own “The Great American Novel,” his fantasy history of a third major league, and so forgotten. That might even be the best fate for “The Plot Against America” -- because then, someday, some unwarned reader, with no reason to respect it, will come upon the book and discover that, whatever else it is, it is a fabulous yarn.
Among Roth’s 18 previous novels, “The Great American Novel” is one of Roth’s four or five best, and comparable only to “Portnoy’s Complaint” because there too Roth let his imagination run wild. Outrageousness was the currency. With “The Great American Novel” moving at full speed, history as it actually happened was left behind; the real-life Babe Ruth or Connie Mack, whose fictional incarnations rampaged through the book, were left behind -- and, as Roth’s imagination seemed to take on a life of its own, he all but left himself behind. “The Plot Against America” is written with a much stronger sense of control, but that is part of the plot, and “The Plot”: the sense, always present, that at any moment the lives of a small boy, his family and his country can spin altogether out of control, that every assumption underlying the orderly progress of ordinary life from one day to the next may be contradicted, countermanded and reversed.
Always, the reader is tethered to this child’s terror, and to the fury and shame of a father deprived of his job and his self-respect, to the stoicism of a mother for whom order is inseparable from love and who understands that for her both are in mortal jeopardy. That only makes the most outrageous parts of “The Plot Against America” more powerful. Far more shocking than Roth’s careful portrait of Lindbergh as a fascist is his account of him as a candidate and as a president: He is a man who campaigns in the Spirit of St. Louis itself, who lights down as if sent by God to speak perhaps 40 words to the people (“He spoke without removing his leather headgear or his flight goggles, which were pushed up onto his forehead”) before ascending once again. He is a leader who, alone, flies through the American skies whenever there is a speech to be made or a job to be done, as if, folksy and inviolable, he is God himself. At first a satire comparable to the “The horror, the horror” baseball-comes-to-Africa section of “The Great American Novel,” Roth’s account of the only real challenge to Lindbergh’s rule -- the presidential candidacy of the low-life gossip columnist and Roosevelt supporter Walter Winchell -- soon becomes a true horror story, with its own suicidal momentum. You can’t wait to find out what happens, and you all but cover your eyes when it does.
By then, the reader, like Roth’s characters -- the real Roths in their fictional bodies; the real American actors Lindbergh, FDR, La Guardia, Sen. Burton Wheeler of Montana and Henry Ford; Roth’s altogether invented characters, from a pro-Lindbergh rabbi (“The pompous son of a bitch knows everything,” goes the world-historical put-down from little Philip’s uncle Monty, “it’s too bad he doesn’t know anything else”) to a downstairs neighbor -- is caught up in an America in which anything can happen, and, as in a horror movie, caught up in the certainty that it will.
It leaves you breathless, right up to the point when the cavalry comes riding over the hill and the great train of American history is switched back onto the right track, and we emerge from the book as if nothing had happened at all: Despite all that happens to America in the 1940s in “The Plot Against America,” for instance, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy is still shot in the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968. What happened? Anything? Or did nothing change?
This is queer; then it is uncanny. Effortlessly, it seems, Roth has led us to suspend disbelief; then he makes us believe; then he suspends this belief and finally removes it. The result is that the present, as it is as I write, seems already in the past. Anything can happen; it is happening now. “Even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins,” the German critic Walter Benjamin wrote in 1940, the year he killed himself out of fear he was about to be captured by Nazis. In a novelist’s hands the dead are never safe: in Roth’s hands, not his boyhood self, his dead parents, his living brother or for that matter Abraham Lincoln. Lindbergh is safe from us, perhaps; he cannot be killed more completely than Roth kills him here, but we are not safe from him.
Greil Marcus is the author of “Lipstick Traces” and “The Dustbin of History,” among other works. His new book, “The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad,” is co-edited with Sean Wilentz and will be published by W.W. Norton in November.