The great American writers are regionalists, Philip Roth recently said, sounding for a minute like a pontificating theorist. "It's in the American grain," he explained. He cited Faulkner in Mississippi and Updike in Pennsylvania, but his argument doesn't stand up to scrutiny. You can find good or better names among the non-regionalists -- Hemingway operating in Spain, the midwesterner Fitzgerald scrutinizing the morals of Long Island, Henry James roaming Europe, all of them far from the regions that produced them.
Still, Roth has fixed on this wrongheaded notion for the right reason. He's realized that he's a regionalist himself, and that idea helps him understand a mystery, the strangest thing that's happened to his career and the most remarkable event in current American fiction. He's on a roll, producing one spectacular book after another, and as he reads the reviews of The Plot Against America, his fourth major novel in seven years, he's probably as surprised as any of us. His Late Period has become an off-the-charts phenomenon, like the stream of great portraits Titian poured out as he entered his 90s, Joe DiMaggio's impossible 56-game hitting streak in 1941, or those world-beating paper cut-outs Matisse made as he lay crippled with arthritis during his last years.
How often does a richly accomplished author, having already nailed down his place in literature, start over at age 64 and begin building a series of substantial and audacious books as he closes his seventh decade and begins his eighth? In 1997, at age 64, he delivered a masterpiece, American Pastoral; in 1998 he gave us I Married a Communist, a terrific historical novel; and 2000 brought that amazing multilayered drama of American life, The Human Stain.
Now, in his 72nd year, Roth offers The Plot Against America, a dazzling counterfactual novel that re-imagines the 1940 presidential election as a victory for Charles Lindbergh, the famous pilot, isolationist and anti-Semite. Lindbergh wins the Republican nomination and runs a one-issue campaign against Franklin Roosevelt; buttons worn by his supporters say, "Keep America Out of the Jewish War."
A glamorous Aryan who campaigns in jodhpurs and flight goggles, he becomes president by a landslide and meets Hitler in Reykjavik to sign the Iceland Understanding of 1941, a non-aggression treaty that, like the Hitler-Stalin Pact earlier, implicitly supports the Nazi conquest of Europe.
In these novels Roth burrows deeper than ever before into his own private region, the mainly Jewish Weequahic section of Newark as it existed half a century ago. There he's found fresh comfort, fresh inspiration and a new way to fulfill one of his oldest desires, depicting individuals swept away by the winds of history. Perhaps it's because he's found so many satisfactions in his own renewed regionalism that he imagines it's the dominant American way of fiction.
All four novels combine closely observed local detail with disruptive public events. All of them work changes on the same theme: How people handle the pressures of living with history when it comes banging on their front doors. In American Pastoral, his bitter account of the 1960s, a happy man's beautiful daughter inexplicably turns into a sullen New Leftist whose bomb kills someone. In I Married a Communist his characters, many of them simple-minded, are swamped by McCarthyism. In The Human Stain a false accusation of racism destroys a distinguished professor.
The Plot Against America invites us into a fictionalized version of Roth's childhood home, where nine-year-old Phil and his teenaged brother, Sandy, live with their parents, Herman, an insurance salesman, and his vigilant, determined wife, Besse.
The Roth parents are horrified when Lindbergh becomes president and more horrified still when he puts Henry Ford (so famous as a Jew-hater that no one in Weequahic will drive one of his cars) in the cabinet. Some neighbours move to Winnipeg and the Roths wonder whether they should follow.
As history invades their home, the normal family frictions of the Roths turn into bitter, intransigent conflict. The haven in a heartless world becomes an arena of dispute and fear. Lindbergh's ascendancy, followed by anti-Semitic rioting, unmans Herman Roth, who can no longer perform his central duty, protecting his wife and children. Since he's based all his pride on that role, there's nothing left for him but frustrated humiliation. Phil's childhood ends as he watches his father fall apart.
These domestic actors perform against a backdrop painted in rough, thick strokes, like a cartoon -- national politics as a nine-year-old might see it. Some readers, like me, will want more news from Washington. (A sucker for counterfactual history and historical narratives focused on single turning points, I can still remember being thrilled when a high-school teacher told our class that the course of civilization would have been different if the Persians instead of the Greeks had won the naval battle of 480 BCE in the Strait of Salamis.)
In outlining the political side of the story, Roth displays his own affection for uncouth truth-tellers and his disdain for those who hide behind respectability. In his hands the gossip columnist Walter Winchell (who lives in real history as a sneak and a toady) becomes heroic, the only famous American to defy Lindbergh. Fighting for a free country, he gets assassinated. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York says over his body at the funeral that Walter talked too loud and too fast, yet "Walter's vulgarity is something great, and Lindbergh's decorum is hideous" -- a summary of Roth's sensibility.
Those who know his attitude to official Jewry won't be surprised to discover that there's an odious radio-star rabbi who collaborates with the Lindbergh people. He's expertly drawn, and so are Roth's neighbours and relatives, including the only war hero among them, a young man who goes to war with the Canadian Army, comes home missing a leg, and becomes a gangster.
Roth has more surprises to unfold. He provides, for instance, his own explanation of the geopolitical motive behind the famous Lindbergh baby kidnapping of 1932 and he gives the heroine's role to an unlikely but convincing figure. The story and the Lindbergh era both get wrapped up with Dickens-like haste, but the point has been brilliantly made: History enters all our lives, and shapes every corner of them as it pleases, whether we know it or not. Like death, history is not among the forces we can escape.