Jonathan Cape, £16.99
A departure from Roth’s recent meditations on the indignities of old age, his new novel revisits the age-old menaces of sex, death and communism. The campus-based tale, set against the backdrop of the Korean War, follows the son of a kosher butcher in 1950s Newark.
Nineteen-year-old freshman, Marcus Messner, attempts to escape his suffocating and overbearing father by leaving college in New Jersey and transfers, somewhat disastrously, to Winesberg College, Ohio. Messner is an A-grade student, while his new classmates are churchgoing, beer-swilling conservatives. Disregarding the Jewish fraternity and determined to escape the claustrophobia of his father’s oppressive love, the butcher’s shop, and the stink of blood and meat, Messner involves himself with a disturbed Gentile named Olivia Hutton.
Alienated by the Christian ethos and confused by his sexual experiences, Messner fears he is only a sexual-transgression away from ending up a doomed rifleman in Korea. His father is proved correct in his abnormal anxiety for his son’s welfare, because Messner is killed in action in Korea.
He is drafted after expulsion from Winesburg, following a series of amusing clashes with college authorities, charting Roth’s return to comic form. Roth condemns Messner to an afterlife of endless metaphysical incomprehension, doomed to revisit the events of his life. While death is a unifying preoccupation of Roth’s later work, the clumsy shift in narration from first person to third in the final chapter, spelling out Messner’s fate for anyone who hasn’t quite worked it out, is an ill-considered strategy which disrupts the otherwise propulsive and visceral narrative. But without Roth’s characteristically taught style, the novel would simply be a series of comic set-pieces which didn’t make the cut in his earlier works.
Messner’s sexual hi-jinks are not unlike that of previous Roth protagonist Mickey Sabbath, masturbating on his beloved’s grave; he is not simply another of Roth’s fictional alter-egos, but a far darker creation of sexual insecurity. The amount of sex (as in any Roth novel) is not quite enough to be gratuitous.
It is never an end in itself but a principal source of terror and neuroticism. While this may sound like well-trodden ground to anyone who has read at least one of Roth’s 29 novels on sex, conformity and religious and moral rectitude, it is anything but formulaic.
Much more satisfying than his last novel, the sorely disappointing Exit Ghost, Indignation is a combination of the poignant disenchantment of Roth’s recent works, and the righteous anger of his earlier novels.