Once again, Philip Roth has published a novel that you must read - now. It's not that an appreciation of his book depends on the political climate; our appreciation of the political climate depends on his book. During a bitterly contested election in a time of war against an amorphous enemy, "The Plot Against America" inspires exactly the kind of discussion we need.
With a seamless blend of autobiography, history, and speculation, Roth imagines that Charles Lindbergh ran against Franklin Roosevelt in the presidential election of 1940. Drawing on Lindbergh's writings and speeches at the time, Roth creates a campaign for the aviation hero centered on his determination to keep America out of Europe's war. While Roosevelt enunciates complex policies in his famous upper-class cadence, Lindbergh buzzes around the country in The Spirit of St. Louis declaring, "Your choice is simple. It's between Lindbergh and war." To preserve the nation, we must resist the propaganda of "the Jewish race," Lindbergh warns, "and their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government."
After winning by a landslide, he immediately negotiates "understandings" with the Axis, consigning Europe to Germany in exchange for a promise to leave America alone. Political opponents rail against the president for "yielding to his Nazi friends," but everybody knows those nay-sayers are just warmongering Jews.
Lindbergh's first domestic initiative is the creation of the Office of American Absorption to "encourage America's religious and national minorities to become further incorporated into the larger society." In practice, this involves sending urban Jewish children to spend the summer on farms in the South - "a Jewish farm hand in the Gentile heartland." Eventually, the program expands to remove whole Jewish families from their city "ghettos" and send them to exciting, new lives in the Midwest. If their culture is dissolved in the process, well, that's OK too.
Yes, Lindbergh comes off very bad in these pages. He spouts anti-Semitic canards that sound far more shocking now than in 1938, when he accepted the Nazis' Service Cross of the German Eagle "by order of the Fuhrer." But clearly Roth's real target isn't an anti-Semitic aviation hero who died 30 years ago. It's an electorate he sees as dazzled by attractive faces, moved by simple slogans, and cowed by ominous warnings about threats to our security.
The result is a cautionary story in the tradition of "The Handmaid's Tale," a stunning work of political extrapolation about a triumvirate of hate, ignorance, and paranoia that shreds decency and overruns liberty. Roth provides brilliant analysis of political rhetoric: the way demagogues manipulate public opinion and the way responsible journalists inadvertently prop up tyrants in their devotion to objectivity and balance.
But what really gives the novel life is its narrator: a little boy named Phil Roth. He lives in Newark with his older brother, who's completely enamored with Charles Lindbergh; his righteous father, who's convinced the new president is an American Hitler; and his long- suffering mother, who struggles to hold her family together as the nation is ripped apart.
In a voice that blends the tones of the author's nostalgia with the boy's innocence, Phil describes the national crisis through its effect on his own family. It's a narrative structure fraught with risks, particularly the danger of making this 7-year-old boy look cloying or inappropriately sophisticated, but Roth keeps his bifocal vision in perfect focus. The result is a profound examination of the way children negotiate their parents' ideals and their culture's prejudices along the way to developing not just a political consciousness but a sense of safety in the world.
Soon after Lindbergh wins the election, for instance, the Roth family takes a trip to Washington, D.C., to reassure themselves of the stability of American democracy. Phil's father is full of enthusiasm, repeating the guide's patter and pointing to the sights. He also can't resist broadcasting his criticism of the new president. "That's just expressing my opinion," he protests when his wife begs him to be more discreet, but they're jeered at and thrown out of their hotel. Phil feels embarrassed and terrified, but he's also proud to have a father "ruthlessly obedient to the idea of fair play."
That conflicted response continues as young Phil struggles to keep his alliances straight in a world of baffling complexity. His brother can't say enough about Lindbergh's wonders. Their father's suspicion seems downright paranoid. When his aunt starts dating the token Jew in Lindbergh's administration, Phil can see firsthand the rich rewards of assimilation and collusion. What, after all, did his cousin gain by joining the Canadians in their fight against the Nazis, except a prosthetic leg?
By the novel's climax, the conflict tearing the world apart is violently loose in his own living room. "I was disillusioned," he writes, "by a sense that my family was slipping away from me right along with my country."
Victims of anti-Semitism will react in a special way (as will the descendants of Japanese-Americans interned by Roosevelt), but "The Plot Against America" is really a story about the loss of innocence, about that moment when it's no longer possible for "mother and father to set things right and explain away enough of the unknown to make existence appear to be rational."
This isn't the wrathful Roth of "The Human Stain" or "I Married a Communist." This narrator is too deeply unsettled to be angry, and frankly that makes him far more unsettling to us. In a surprising final chapter, after he's neatly woven his fictional history back into the historical record we all know, Roth concludes with a small, tragic story of a neighbor whose family is crushed, almost accidentally, by the fury of racial hatred. It's a stunning, deeply disturbing episode for young Phil, and one that leaves us shaken with the narrator's "perpetual fear."
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.