Friday, January 2, 2009

School Days

Philip Roth – without doubt he is one of the most important writers in American literary history. But in recent years his books have seemed to reflect his own concerns about growing old. His main characters were often aging men morbidly reflecting on their prostates, their waning libidos and their own mortality. Did I really want to read another one? So I was surprised to find that in his latest book Indignation Roth had created a main character who was still an adolescent - Marcus Messner, a nineteen-year-old college boy. Marcus is attempting to escape his over-protective father, a Newark kosher butcher, by going to the fictional Winesburg College in rural Ohio. The time is 1951, and Marcus, the narrator of the book, has a few simple goals. He wants to get A's and become the valedictorian, he wants to lose his virginity, and he wants to avoid being drafted into the Korean War. But he is unprepared for the traditions that cling to college life in a Midwestern school. And he is confounded by the attention of the beautiful but troubled Olivia Hutton. The harder Marcus tries to do everything right the more things turn out wrong. The indignation Marcus feels towards much of what happens to him at Winesburg is justified. If this were the 70's he might have led a campus revolt. But this is the 50's, not the 70's, and being right doesn't save him from self-destruction.

Roth also attended college in the early 50's, and his descriptions of this period seem fresh and true, even down to Marcus's wardrobe. Remember white bucks? Roth's school was Bucknell in central Pennsylvania. Like the fictional Winesburg it was founded by Baptists, and I wonder if the obligatory weekly chapel attendance that so irked Marcus was part of Roth's college experience as well.

The early scenes of Marcus dealing with his parents and with customers in the butcher store are very funny – it almost reminds me of the Portnoy family. And his descriptions of Marcus's sexual encounters with Olivia are full of classic Roth sexual humor. But if Roth hasn't lost his sense of humor he also hasn't lost his anger and his sense of outrage. The reader knows early on in the book that things will in fact turn out terribly wrong for Marcus, but we don't know how he gets there. Roth lets the story spiral inexorably downward. It's a powerful fable about the arbitrariness of fate.

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