Arts & Culture

Philip Roth’s Righteous Indignation

Standing over her father’s casket after the slow but steady unraveling of his wits and body towards death, the daughter of the anonymous hero of Philip Roth’s 2006 novel Everyman quotes her father’s code for surviving the cruelty and isolation … Read More

By / September 18, 2008

Standing over her father’s casket after the slow but steady unraveling of his wits and body towards death, the daughter of the anonymous hero of Philip Roth’s 2006 novel Everyman quotes her father’s code for surviving the cruelty and isolation of his spiritless world: "There’s no remaking reality," he would say. "Just take it as it comes. Hold your ground and take it as it comes. There’s no other way." Separated from Everyman by 2007′s Exit Ghost, Roth’s newest novel Indignation grapples with the results of its hero’s almost identical pragmatic code within a swirl of indiscriminant events in an equally random world.

 

It is the early 1950s and kosher butcher’s son Marc Messner escapes the oppressive worries and smallness of his Newark, New Jersey family life for the bucolic but equally oppressive Winesburg College in quaint Winesburg, Ohio. There he tests a worldy wisdom – in words that Everyman himself might have uttered – learned eviscerating chickens at the back of the family store:

That’s what I learned from my father and what I loved learning from him: that you do what you have to do.

Messner begins his career at Winesburg (a fictional stand-in for Oberlin or Kenyon College) girded by an immigrant-style steely will to "do what you have to do" in order to rise up the Jacob’s ladder of the American Dream. He is determined both to study hard in order to become a lawyer and to stay out of trouble in order to avoid the draft the Korean War requires for non-matriculated young men his age. But within weeks of starting school, the foreignness and expectations of Messner’s new surroundings thrust him into a rapid, fateful fall. Navigating the hypocrisy of Winesburg’s sanctimonious WASP social system fractures his resolve to be a good boy, and in the moments before puking on Dean Cauldwell’s shoes, desk, and trophies, Messner girds himself for a precocious change of course: "I inwardly sang out the most beautiful word on the English language: ‘In-dig-na-tion!’"

 

Once Marc Messner spews in every direction in front of the alumnus esteemed for his "drop kicks for Christ," his life is flung in a very similar direction. Indignation trumps the expected "do what you have to do" of getting the right grades and the right girl and the right job. Though the girl he gets is more than ready to give him everything he ever wanted, she is also suicidal, alcoholic, and pregnant. His job in an off-campus bar (where upperclassmen shout "Hey Jew" as he buses tables past midnight) along with his straight A’s end abruptly when he is called to take up arms for Uncle Sam in Korea. Despite the danger Messner knows his indignation is certain to cause him, being indignant emerges as the epitome of "do what you have to do" – a son’s inevitable interpretation of a father’s immigrant creed.

 

Even with his sexual transgressions and personal failures – typical foibles in the heroes and anti-heroes (as if there is a difference) of the world of Roth – the hero of Everyman travels the well ruled road of an upper middle class career and family into oblivion. That is what he has to do. Marc Messner deigns to pull up such shoots long before they can grow.

 

The timing of the release of Indignation is compelling. In an election season once again pitting red state insecurities embodied by the morals of Winesburg, Ohio versus the erratic complexities of the Newark blues,  amidst a war without a convincing rational explanation echoing circumstances not unlike the Korean conflict Marc Messner dreads, Philip Roth continues punching out novels that nail today’s America to the wall for its hypocrisy and missed opportunities. Indignation adds another link in a heavy rattling chain of parables for a nation imbedded in the imagined tale of single families’ tragedy.