Indignation
by Philip Roth
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Philip Roth has delivered his third short novel in as many years. But
whereas
Everyman (2006) and Exit Ghost (2007) dealt with aging
protagonists grappling with physical decline and looming death,
Indignation is a coming-of-age story about a contentious teenager.  
Then again, this is a teenager dealing with
looming death—thus proving that, with Roth,
the more things change, the more they stay
the same.

In fact, this novel seems to bring us back full
circle to
Goodbye, Columbus, Roth’s first book
from 1959. Almost a half-century has elapsed,
but Roth is again taking on 1950s morality,
the travails of young love (and sexuality),
university life, the U.S. military, and generational
tensions. These are Roth’s specialties, and
reeling off the list makes me feel like a waiter
talking about the chef’s classic dishes made
available again as tonight’s menu additions.
But the piquant flavor of the 1950s, which merely stood as the status
quo for Roth in
Goodbye, Columbus, is now a familiar ingredient in the
type of modern American period fiction that has gradually become
another Roth trademark. So much so, that I now wait for the
President of the United States to figure in every Roth novel I read,
much like Hitchcock making a cameo appearance in his movies, even if
(as in
Lifeboat) it is only via a newspaper passing through the
narrative.

Yet Roth’s strangest twist here is his introduction of a dead
protagonist. This is always an unsettling device, whether it emerges
in the second sentence (as in Alice Sebold’s
The Lovely Bones), or at
the end of the story (as in the film
American Beauty). My favorite
example is Philip K. Dick’s
Ubik, where the reader gradually realizes
over the course of the novel that most of the main characters might
be dead. Roth, in contrast, is not quite so dramatic. He handles the
disclosure that his narrator is deceased almost as an aside, about a
quarter of the way into the book.

His oh-by-the-way manner of revealing this is surprising, despite its
casual delivery. But even more surprising is how little Roth makes use
of this unusual narrative perspective. He offers up a description of
the afterlife that is so sparse and succinct, that he might as well be
describing a room at Motel 6. (Clean, comfortable, quiet . . . what
more is there to say?)  Marcus Messner, our hero, merely lets it drop
that he is dead, shares a few meager details, then goes on with his
story.

This tale turns on Messner’s struggles to release himself from the
controlling instincts of his father, a kosher butcher who can’t seem to
accept that his college-age son has a life of his own. Finally the
youngster decides that he needs to leave his New Jersey home, and
arranges for a transfer to a small college in Ohio. The college is called
Winesburg, but this is not Sherwood Anderson territory. Roth plays
masterfully with all his familiar themes: the impinging of historical
events (the Korean War, in this instance) on day-to-day realities;
Jewish identity in American life; getting laid; tempers running out of
control; and other matters that we have seen in his previous novels.

Flaming tempers play a major role in the plot. Even if Messner falls
short of previous Rothian exemplars of Indignation with a capital I,
such as the young terrorist who bombs buildings (in
American
Pastoral
) or the crazed veteran out for blood (in The Human Stain), he
nonetheless finds he has a short fuse that causes recurring
problems. The conflict with his father is followed by battles with two
different roommates at Winesburg, and then a heated encounter
with a Dean.

This latter conversation, spurred ostensibly by the college’s
requirement that students attend chapel services, follows in the
steps of Bertrand Russell’s position in his famous lecture / essay
“Why I Am Not a Christian.” By Roth’s own admission, much of
Messner’s argument is taken verbatim from Russell. Yet at other
times our hero finds that a thrown punch is even more satisfying than
a philosopher’s ratiocinations in resolving disagreements. Time and
time again, Messner seems driven to escalate conflicts that he might
just as easily ignore. These eventually cascade into a spiral of
indignation that threatens to backfire on him, perhaps even cause his
(as we know) inevitable death.

During the course of this short novel, Roth sets up many fascinating
and memorable scenes. The encounters between Messner and Dean
Caudwell are engaging, as is Roth’s spirited description of a snowball
fight that veers out of control until it almost takes on Day of the
Locust proportions. The ensuing speech by the angry President of
Winesburg is also handled with high drama. Messner’s puzzled
reaction to a first date that goes too well also stands out.
Yet too many of these vibrant interludes in Indignation leave the
reader hanging. In a longer novel, Roth would do so much more with
Messner’s suicidal girlfriend Olivia Hutton, his eccentric Oscar-Wilde-
ish roommate Bertram Flusser, the politically savvy Winesburg
President Albin Leintz, and other high octane characters. At times the
narrative seems rushed, and this change in pacing is all the more
noticeable when Roth slows down and delivers the goods.

Yet Roth’s unflagging productivity in his mid-seventies is something to
celebrate. This author may have written two dozen or so novels, but
he shows no sign of slowing down or of exhausting his capacity for
story-telling There was enough gusto in
Indignation to keep me
primed for the next book. And with
The Humbling slated for 2009
release, it seems that we can continue to count (at least for the time
being) on a Philip Roth novel as an annual event.

This review originally appeared on
Blogcritics.