September 21st, 2008 | by JOHN MINERVINI News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

TOME RAIDER: Indignation, Part I of II

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Every Sunday, WW writer John Minervini brings you the latest in book reviews, author Q&A's and Portland literary gossip. Click here to join the Tome Raider mailing list.
    Six-word Summary: Butcher's Son Makes Good, Gets Gored

Grab a healthy snack, readers, because this week's blog has got it all: a new novel from Philip Roth, a recondite German critical term, a windy digression, and even…an intermission! That's right: approximately halfway through the post, there will be a twenty-four hour entr'acte during which you are welcome to stand up, stretch your legs, smoke a cigarette or make a few purchases from the Willamette Week gift shop. As a consideration to your fellow readers, please take a few moments to turn off your cell phones. And now, to the task at hand:

the book!

For those who haven't been reading along, Philip Roth's new novel, Indignation (Houghton Mifflin, 256 pages, $26.00)—which hit bookshelves earlier this week—is a far cry from his earlier stuff. Gone is the formally ambitious, energetic prose of Portnoy's Complaint or Operation Shylock, what the author himself described as “extremist fiction.” In its place, the author offers a sad story, simply told, combining elements of fatalism, paranoia and misanthropy familiar from more recent offerings like The Plot Against America and Everyman. The big difference is that whereas previous novels have contemplated death primarily from the POV of living characters, Indignation contemplates life from the vantage of death. It gets off to a slow start, but it's well worth reading.

The Plot: Marcus Messner, son of a kosher butcher in 1950's Newark, has lived life up to his elbows in meat, blood and gristle. That's no big thing for Marcus—although he doesn't relish sticking his hands up chickens' asses and eviscerating them, he's willing to accept it as his duty. But now, as the first member of his family to attend college, Marcus has the opportunity to escape from the world of his father's shop and become a new person. That prospect is all the more appealing since Messner, Sr., has suddenly become debilitatingly paranoid about his son's every move.

On a whim, Marcus transfers to Winesburg College in Ohio, where expensively attired Anglo Christians with monthly allowances pledge fraternities and lovingly uphold the institution's thousand oppressive traditions. It's a big change from the kosher butcher shop, but in spite of difficulties, Marcus' time at Winesburg marks a period of exploration and unprecedented intellectual growth. He fights with an emotionally unbalanced roommate. He falls in love with a troubled but beautiful Gentile girl. He even says “fuck you” to the dean.

None of it lasts. The Gentile girl suffers has a nervous breakdown, and before long Marcus has been expelled from school on a technicality. In short order, he's drafted, sent to Korea and killed. More precisely, his guts and crotch are lanced by Chinese bayonets. Interestingly, the book is narrated from Marcus' posthumous perspective. The afterlife, it turns out, is a lonely, disembodied affair—an eternity in which there is nothing to do except contemplate one's own memories, over and over again.

Of course, the setting invites a comparison with Sherwood Anderson's classic Winesburg, Ohio, and the two books share a lot in common. Both Anderson's and Roth's characters are isolated, inarticulate and emotionally stunted—a dynamic that leaves them lonely and misunderstood. In some cases, the plots actually converge. For instance, both Marcus Messner (Roth) and George Willard (Anderson) have a brief but intense sexual encounter with a girl they hardly know; afterward, both are flummoxed by it. Both Mrs. Messner (Roth) and Elizabeth Willard (Anderson) are trapped in unworkable marriages, but neither knows how to escape.

It's the kind of literature that makes you heave a big, wistful sigh. If only. If only Marcus could adequately express himself; if only Winesburg could let go of its stupid traditions; if only Mrs. Messner hadn't met Olivia.

And now, as promised, let's take a break. I think twenty-four hours should be just about sufficient. So join us tomorrow for the recondite German critical term, the windy digression and the second half of this very important book review.
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