Roth’s latest is an imagined, ‘what-if’ historical memoir in which famed airplane pilot Charles Lindbergh becomes the Nazi-sympathizing President of the United States in 1941. For the Jewish residents of Newark, New Jersey, who are aware of the persecution of Jews in Hitler’s Germany, the Lindbergh presidency presents constant fear. One of these residents is our narrator, the fictional Philip Roth. Roth’s family is ripped apart by political events, as his brother Sandy and Aunt Evelyn become Lindbergh loyalists, and his cousin Alvin returns from Canadian military service maimed and disgruntled. Soon Philip, at eight years old, is suffering from “the ailment called why-can’t-it-be-the-way-it-was.”
While these events may sound farfetched, faux-historical passages explain, in detail, how national events have unfolded. For those who still aren’t convinced, Roth includes some well-researched historical notes, biographical information of real-life figures in the book, and actual Lindbergh quotes. This isn’t just for the purpose of insisting that yes, it could happen here - the interrelation between history, one’s life, and fiction lies at the very heart of the book. “‘What is history?’” Mr. Roth asks his son. “‘History is everything that happens everywhere. Even here in Newark. Even here on Summit Avenue.’”
“Summit Avenue,” to Roth, is a lot more than a street. As history unravels, everything seems to change his idea of home. Sandy gladly participates in the summer exchange program of the Office of American Absorption, which has strongly encouraged young Jews to experience life in the rural, apparently more ‘American’ United States. “Our incomparable American childhood had ended,” Philip laments. “Soon my homeland would be nothing more than my birthplace.” Thus, the titular “Plot” Against America is nothing like Hitler’s “final solution,” As Philip’s mother eventually realizes, the plot is “to get rid of Newark as it is, with Jews living here like everyone else.” This book asks, what is America? Our physical security? Or the right to preserve our individual cultural identity, without fear? While there’s no direct Dubya connection here, it’s important to see where the right-wingers of past and present have pointed us.
While The Plot Against America is an amazingly original idea, it is, in many ways, a recapitulation of the setting and themes prominent in Roth’s other works, including Jewish guilt and self-hatred. For some reasons, it is superior to his previous works; for example, the young Roth’s perspective makes for a rich but less heady read, and filters out the embarrassing sexual exploits of characters in other Roth books. On the other hand, the national history here sometimes detracts from the personal narrative, and the ending could have given much more resolution. First-time Roth readers may be more interested in the post-adolescent malaise of Goodbye, Columbus or the neurotic comedy of Portnoy’s Complaint. But for one good look at our past, fictional or not, look no farther.