Review of 'The Plot Against America', Philip Roth, Jonathan Cape £16.99
America - the world's policeman, safeguarding democracy. If you don't buy that image of George Bush's US this novel will speak to you. Although it is set in the 1940s, Philip Roth's hugely successful book addresses the growing power of the US right and the impact of their increasingly vicious 'war on terror'. The novel demonstrates that US democracy is vulnerable - not to Al Qaida, but to the far right in the US itself. The Plot Against America is not hatched by Islamic terrorists but by homegrown fascists.
The novel is built on a historical 'what if'. The great US hero Charles Lindbergh made the first solo transatlantic flight in 1927, and attracted worldwide sympathy when his baby son was murdered in a botched kidnap attempt five years later. Lindbergh also called Hitler 'a great man' and was decorated by the Third Reich. What if, Roth asks, Lindbergh had run for president against Democrat FD Roosevelt in 1940 on a ticket of opposing US involvement in the war against Hitler? What if he won a landslide victory and set about constructing a series of increasingly harsh anti-Semitic and authoritarian measures?
Roth examines this possibility through the eyes of an ordinary Jewish family from New Jersey, their friends and neighbours. He brilliantly captures the varied responses of people who face persecution. Some collaborate, convincing themselves that there is no real threat. Others lapse into bewilderment, refusing to believe that their normal lives can be torn apart. Others plan their flight.
Some brilliantly chilling scenes reveal the growing pressure on the family to look the other way, to ignore insults against them and desperately pretend that everything will be OK. So when the Roth family experience anti-Semitism on a holiday in New York, mother Bess and sons Philip and Sandy will their father not to cause a scene by protesting.
Bess's sister Evelyn and Rabbi Bengelsdorf collaborate enthusiastically with the sinister 'Just Folks' scheme, under which promising Jewish children are sent off to be re-educated on Midwestern farms. They involve Sandy in the Office of American Absorption, which leads to huge tensions between him and his family, who see through such measures. But those who see what is happening around them are made to feel that they are paranoid, obsessed with the persecutions of the old world rather than recognising the opportunities offered by the new. In the end Evelyn and Bengelsdorf's fervent support for Lindbergh does not save them from his regime. The drip, drip, drip of anti-Semitic regulations builds up into a terrifying climax of pogroms and assassinations.
Overhanging the novel is the characters' sense of disbelief that this could be happening in democratic America. At every stage the Jewish grown-ups wonder if they are being paranoid or rightly scared. It is this atmosphere that makes the novel so disturbing and relevant. Could a US regime whip up blatant racism against a minority group? Could it suspend civil liberties and constitutional freedoms? And could it do so with the support of the majority of the population who are blinded by fear? When should ordinary people stand up and resist?
By raising such questions in this historical framework, Roth has created a chilling story of the fragility of the self-proclaimed greatest democracy in the world. It's only a shame that he seems to lack the nerve to follow his novel through to its logical conclusion.