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Indignation

Philip Roth's new novel just rails against religion in 1950s America.

By Yvonne Zipp / September 13, 2008



Beware the glossy college brochure. Those manicured quad lawns, brick buildings, and impossibly coiffed coeds have lured many a hopeful teen. Marcus Messner, the narrator of award-winning author Philip Roth’s new novel, Indignation, is merely one of the more unwary.
Marcus is a college freshman who used to be happy living at home in Newark, N.J., and helping out in his dad’s butcher shop. Then the United States gets involved in the Korean War, and Marcus’s dad becomes terrified that his son is going to die.

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“It’s about life, where the tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences,” he rants to his son after searching for Marcus at a pool hall. (Marcus was studying late at the library, to better maintain his 4.0 average.)

After his dad’s rant, Marcus “ran out of the house, wondering where [he] could find a car to steal to go to Scranton to play pool....”

Roth does a wonderful job of describing the trench warfare that becomes Marcus’s relationship with his dad.

Overwhelmed by fear, his dad treats his arrow-straight boy like a juvenile delinquent. (His mother pleads with her husband not to destroy their family with his paranoia, but it’s futile.)

If there’s anything that sets teenagers quivering with outrage, it is unfairness, and Marcus reacts predictably – scurrying as far away from Newark as his limited resources will allow. That turns out to be a small, conservative college in Ohio.

“So as to be free of my father, I’d chosen a school 15 hours by car from New Jersey ... but with no understanding on my part of the beliefs with which youngsters were indoctrinated as a matter of course deep in the heart of America.”

Before arriving at Winesburg College, Marcus spends his time staring at the brochure (he even buys himself the outfit the boy on the cover is wearing), and neglects to notice the mandatory chapel requirement.

So, the avowed atheist finds himself fuming in a pew, mentally reciting the Chinese national anthem over and over again. Rather than chuckling at his own stupidity and just sneaking in a book, Marcus goes on a crusade against the chapel requirement and the entire Christian religion.

(The novel is set in 1951, not 1969, so readers will have a pretty fair idea of the probability of Marcus’s toppling this particular windmill.)

Marcus is also one of the few Jewish students on campus, and, despite his desire to focus just on his studies, he finds himself being courted by the only Jewish fraternity.

There’s a bit of friction with an overly dramatic roommate, but Marcus is settling in all right until he goes out on his first date. (This being a Roth novel, sex plays a pivotal role in Marcus’s downfall.)

Marcus is pretty candid with readers early on that they’re looking at a tragedy: He’s dead, he explains, although he’s not sure for how long.

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