Even subpar Philip Roth is worth reading

In the hands of a lesser literary god, Philip Roth’s latest novel, “Indignation,” might have broken away from its moorings. Borrowing as much as he did from his own life story, the great Jewish writer could have lost his way by stubbornly sticking to mere facts.

Fortunately, at this stage of his career, the 75-year-old Roth is incapable of writing a bad novel. While “Indignation,” his 29th book, may not rise to the level of “The Plot Against America,” “Everyman” or his Zuckerman series, it is still a fast and fanciful read.

As for those autobiographical facts he borrowed for this latest volume: Roth is a Newark, N.J., native who attended a small rural college in the early 1950s, where he found first love. He served in the Army around the time of the Korean War. And he’s Jewish.

Marcus Messner, the novel’s hapless protagonist, shares all of the above, but as is made clear early on, he does not enjoy a laurel-crowned life like Roth’s. Far from it. “Indignation” is instead a melancholy meditation on loneliness, lost opportunities and the maddening brevity of life.

A model student and the only child of a kosher butcher, 18-year-old Marcus flees an increasingly oppressive home life for the relative quiet of Ohio’s Winesburg College. There he begins a steady downward spiral, alienating himself from his parents, his roommates, the school’s moralistic dean and, most importantly, Olivia, the sexy, suicidal non-Jewish co-ed with whom he falls in love.

He’s a college-age Holden Caulfield with no field of rye or anyone to catch.

Surely it’s no coincidence Roth set his story in the town made famous by Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 short story collection, “Winesburg, Ohio.” The denizens of Anderson’s Winesburg are emotionally crippled, just like those in “Indignation.”

This is the early 1950s, after all. With the Cold War raging, America was gripped by puritanical political correctness and a regimented code of behavior. For lost souls like Marcus, unwilling to toe the party line, there was nowhere to go but down.

Just as the plot begins to heat up about a quarter of the way through, Roth makes a startling revelation. It would be best to let readers discover it for themselves, but this twist does color — or perhaps stain — the rest of the narrative.

It’s a shame, too, because Marcus’ inept college adventures — from having a life-changing sexual dalliance with Olivia in the backseat of his roommate’s LaSalle, to throwing up on the desk of the insufferable Dean Caudwell — could have made for a darkly comic McCarthy-era version of “Animal House.”

Though laced with some humor, Roth’s novel steers away from levity as the story grows ever more tragic. He titled the book “Indignation” for a reason.

Even this late into his career, Roth is a stylistic daredevil. In “Indignation” he masterfully weaves together diverse motifs, from the carnage of a kosher butcher shop to the carnage of the Korean War, from outdated sexual mores to a mob-driven college panty raid on the women’s dorms.

The latter results in an odd six-page scold from the college president, addressed to the offending panty raiders on the topic of moral turpitude. It’s by far the longest speech in the novel, though it illuminates the book’s complex themes less than Roth likely had hoped. Sometimes the daredevil dares a bit too much.

But with Roth being Roth, the novel’s Jewish overtones ring loudly. Separated from his familiar Jewish surroundings, Marcus cannot bond with the other Jews on campus, among them a closeted gay student with a temper and a smug jock who inadvertently and indirectly seals Marcus’ fate.

In the novel’s closing pages, Roth hurriedly concludes his tragedy, hurling yet another ingenious twist that clarifies all that came before. It makes for a satisfying literary experience, though the book’s dreary emotional landscape may leave some rattled readers reaching for a DVD of the real “Animal House” to watch afterward.

Still, even if “Indignation” falls short of some of his previous works, Philip Roth is a national treasure who keeps adding to our cultural coffers.

“Indignation” by Philip Roth (256 pages, Houghton Mifflin, $26)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.