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A counterlife

Philip Roth's new novel imagines an alternate America, ruled by fear and hatred, and its effects on one family

The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 391 pp., $26

Nine years ago this fall Philip Roth published his most audacious and his best book, ''Sabbath's Theater," ushering in an extraordinarily fertile run of four novels. Three of them -- ''American Pastoral" (1997), ''I Married a Communist" (1998), and ''The Human Stain" (2000) -- constitute Roth's American trilogy. Dense with historical and social particulars (the Vietnam War, Watergate, post-World War II Communist hunting, matters of race and sex), they are narrated by the thoughtful, disinterested voice of Nathan Zuckerman. Having retired from being the antic hero of earlier Roth novels, Zuckerman in the trilogy becomes a sounding board for the trials of such heroic sufferers as Swede Levov, Ira Ringold, and Coleman Silk. In the new novel, ''The Plot Against America," Zuckerman has disappeared altogether, and the embattled figures of the trilogy have been replaced by none other than Roth himself.

Or so one might naively suppose, if we forget Roth's own words in his 1984 Paris Review interview, where he declared that ''the fundamental novelistic gift" was ''the art of impersonation," and that what happened when he turned himself into Zuckerman was ''an act." It is no less an act for a writer in his eighth decade (Roth was 71 this year) to impersonate a small boy growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in Newark in the years 1940-1942. That the boy is named Philip Roth, that he has an older brother, Sandy, who is skilled at drawing, that his father, Herman, works for an insurance agency, Metropolitan Life, and that his mother, Bess, is a devoted housekeeper -- all these facts of Roth's biography do not make the novelistic act less daring or ambitious. Indeed probably the reverse, since as he pointed out in the interview, biography must be distorted and exploited in order to give it ''that dimension which will excite your verbal life."

''Sabbath's Theater" is the Roth novel whose verbal life is most extravagant and disruptive. By contrast, extravagance in ''The Plot Against America" is located not in the language but in the fable (it might be called a very tall tale) that replaces the history of America's entry into World War II with an alternate scenario. Imagine what would have happened if the renowned airman Charles A. Lindbergh had become the Republican nominee for president in 1940 and gone on to defeat Franklin Roosevelt by a large margin. In ''The Facts," Roth's novelistic autobiography of 1988, the chapter ''Safe at Home" begins by noting that the ''greatest menace" to a boy growing up in Newark in the 1940s ''came from abroad, from the Germans and the Japanese, our enemies because we were American." What if, rather than warring on those enemies, the government under a Republican president who has been honored by the Nazis and who has warned that the ''Jewish race" was attempting to involve America in the European war makes an accommodation with the Axis: America will stay out of the war, while building up its military power into fortress-like capacity. Meanwhile, in the homeland, a newly formed Office for American Absorption, or OAA, disperses Jews from their urban clusters on the Eastern Seaboard by relocating them in states like Kentucky.

Unlike Roth's own boyhood worries about the Germans and Japanese, the novel's Philip worries about being a Jew in America headed by Lindbergh. ''Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear," the novel's opening sentence, is borne out in Philip's actively tormented imaginings: He dreams, for example, that his precious stamp collection (which he eventually loses while trying to run away from home) has been adorned with swastikas. When his rogue cousin Alvin, who has enlisted in the Canadian Army, comes home minus part of one leg (''The Stump" is the chapter title), Philip helps his mother do Alvin's laundry, retrieving the items from the cellar washing machine's wringer he hates and fears. As Bess irons, the boy folds his cousin's underwear and rolls his socks into a ball, ''determined to make everything turn out right by being the best little boy imaginable, much, much better than Sandy and even better than myself." The mixture of boyish navet and adult perspective is typical of the poise with which the novelist handles his young protagonist. As always with a novel by Roth, we must resort to the indefinable but essential term ''voice" to indicate the animating force that drives the narrative. Never has it been more nuanced nor less a matter of flamboyant performance than in ''The Plot Against America."

What may be called the ''Philip voice" is in charge of the family story that contains such beautifully particularized events as the Roths visiting Washington for an ''education" trip and meeting, for the first time in Philip's consciousness, anti-Semitism. Or there is Philip sneaking into a Newark newsreel theater to see clips of an entertainment at the White House in which President Lindbergh hosts Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister. Philip's aunt, now the fiance of a prominent rabbi who supports Lindbergh, works for the OAA, which has just notified the Roths -- to Philip's horror -- that they are to be relocated in Kentucky. Philip is there to find out more about the White House event, but mainly to plead with his aunt to send another Jewish family to Kentucky instead of his own. Philip's brother, who has spent a summer on a Kentucky farm, is convinced his parents are paranoid when, after the father resolves not to run away and declares ''This is our country," the mother contradicts him sadly: ''Not anymore. It's Lindbergh's. It's the goyim's. It's their country."

The plot against America is thus a plot against the Roths. But the novelist also has his plot to work out (an elaborate one that will not be divulged here) in a historian's voice that is all-seeing in its range. As this voice becomes increasingly prominent in the book's next-to-last chapter, ''Bad Days," it threatens to overwhelm the personal voice; and even though Philip's words conclude the novel proper, there follows a postscript with 30 pages of ''documentation," including ''A True Chronology of the Major Figures." Does fact, then, finally, supersede and correct fiction? Not when we realize Roth's ingenuity in this last turn of the screw. For to place the historical facts at the end of the book is a telling, and imaginative, choice on the novelist's part -- that novelist who for 45 years has been continuously reinventing himself, never more notably than in ''The Plot Against America."

William H. Pritchard is a professor of English at Amherst College. His most recent book is ''Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews."

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