Talking about the alternate-history Orioles reminded me that I should say something about The Plot Against America, the Philip Roth novel about a beleaguered Jewish family in Newark during the Second World War — a war which the United States is sitting out, because fascist-friendly Charles Lindbergh unseated FDR in 1940 on a bipartisan isolationist platform.
The tough thing about alternate history is that you have to spend a certain amount of time explaining what’s alternate about it. Roth never figures out how to do this gracefully, and the book ends up with a lot of this stuff:
At press conferences, Roosevelt no longer bothered to make a derisive quip when questioned by newsmen about the unorthodox Lindbergh campaign, but simply moved on to discuss Churchill’s fear of an imminent German invasion of Britain or to announce that he would be asking Congress to fund the first American peacetime draft or to remind Hitler that the United States would not tolerate any interference with the transatlantic aid our merchant vessels were supplying to the British war effort. It was clear from the start that the president’s campaign was to consist of remaining in the White House, where, in contrast to what Secretary Ickes labeled Lindbergh’s “carnival antics,” he planned to address the hazards of the international situation with all the authority at his command, working around the clock if necessary.
This is slack stuff coming from a master like Roth. The quotation from Ickes seems particularly wedged in and strange. One naturally thinks of The Man in the High Castle, which presents a much more radically different America (one occupied by Germany and Japan) but without a lot of talk — the reader experiences occupation the way the characters do, as a largely unremarked feature of everyday life.
This is still a Philip Roth book, so most of it concerns not Roosevelt but a little kid named Philip Roth and his unarticulated battles with his family and the Jewish people, and all that stuff is just fine. There’s nothing to match the really searing parts of American Pastoral — the potential is there when the protagonist’s older brother tilts towards Lindbergh after an invigorating summer among the Gentiles in Kentucky, but Roth pulls back from this instead of heightening the contradictions.
What I thought was most charming about the book requires revealing the end, so I’ll put it after the break.