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100 Books in a Year: The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth

By Brian Prisco | Books | March 30, 2009 |

By Brian Prisco | Books | March 30, 2009 |

I don’t drink wine. There are people who are connoisseurs, those who devote cellars to the pursuit of fine vintage. It’s usually a sign of culture and class to enjoy a nice red with a proper dinner, or to share a bottle with friends. My family often has big dinners where several bottles are passed around. Meanwhile, I sip my martini or whiskey and soda. I understand and appreciate it. I just don’t like it.

Such was the case with Roth. I can appreciate that he’s a good author. And he wrote an epic of alternative history without getting sci-fi. In fact, it’s probably more frightening because it was palpable. He wrote a semi-biographical fictional account of what life was like growing up during Charles Lindbergh’s presidency during an America that never entered WWII and instead brokered peace with Hitler, who Lindbergh admired. It was an America where the Jews were slowly broken apart, not by outright pogroms, but under the auspices of a fascist state which sinisterly uttered the dissolution of Jewish America ever so gently and quietly. It deftly blends fiction and fact, real personages with a fictional family. It’s really well written, and it was interesting.

I just didn’t like it.

I couldn’t rightly say why. I couldn’t give you a good explanation. Maybe it just wasn’t the right time to read it. Maybe it just the style Roth uses, sort of this odd blend of almost talmudic lecture, where he speaks omnisciently about himself or the greater picture, with a lot of repetition and phrasing. It kind of felt like watching an episode of “The Honeymooners” or “I Love Lucy,” if there was a lot of nudity and swearing. It felt dated and old, but with this new visceral language added in. It felt strange to me, like hearing your grandparents fuck, or watching your great aunt call someone a cuntstain. It’s not that that stuff doesn’t happen, it’s just that it feels so far removed from the now that it’s almost false.

Weirder still is that I feel compelled to read Roth again. I never bothered reading any John Irving or any of that ilk. I don’t know how I was permitted an English degree without it, suffice it to say I stayed mostly Southern and British in my fiction. I never traipsed to the Northeast or even the greater west with my contemporary Americans. Which explains my love affair with Flannery O’Connor and Mark Twain, and my disdain for The Cider House Rules and Snow Falling on Cedars.

It was the strangest feeling reading the book. I would equate it to being hungover during a particularly fascinating college lecture. You’re absorbed in what your hearing in the background, but you just want this to fucking end. You just don’t want to hear anymore, and you want it to be over where you’ll be safe away from this important and captivating material. Sorry, if I disrespected you, Mr. Roth. I feel the same way about chianti.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. Details are here and the growing number of participants and their blogs are here.

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