Indignation

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Philip Roth, Jonathan Cape, £16.99

It is 1951 and the Korean War has entered its second year. Marcus Messner, the young son of a kosher butcher in Newark, directs every ounce of his energy into his studies to avoid entering the conflict at a low rank and getting butchered like his cousins in the Second World War.

As a grade A student at the local college he enjoys his course: his radical lecturers, the opportunity to mix with a diverse student body and studying the works of Bertrand Russell. He helps his father run his shop and, as with his studies, is a diligent and appreciated worker.

Then, as so often in the books of Philip Roth, it all starts to go wrong. Marcus's father becomes increasingly protective of his son. Each night Marcus spends in the library is, in his father's mind, a wild night out at the pool tables in town, derailing his son's life forever: "'Oh, Christ, you sound like a fortune cookie.' 'Do I? Do I? Not like a concerned father but like a fortune cookie? That's what I sound like when I'm talking to my own son about the future he has ahead of him, which any little thing could destroy, the tiniest thing?' 'Oh, the hell with it!' I cried, and ran out of the house, wondering where I could find a car to steal to go to Scranton to play pool and maybe pick up the clap on the side."

Marcus decides eventually to leave town and study instead at Winesburg College in Ohio, and so his downfall begins.

Anyone familiar with Philip Roth's books will know his intricate examinations of the minutiae of life. He is able to grip the reader with mundane descriptions of how Marcus would scratch down the wooden chopping boards with a wire brush at the end of every day or sweep the sawdust from the bloody floor.

This is the story of the all too apparent flip side of the American Dream. Marcus does his best: he studies and works with every waking hour. But the barriers that spring up before him come from the old order, desperate to stamp out the first sparks of sexual liberation, atheism and youthful independence. These barriers lead eventually to tragedy.

Indignation was pleasantly reminiscent of JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. And it is surely the work of literary genius for the 75 year old Roth to be able to write so naturally of the emotional trials and tribulations of a 20 year old.

This is a short read, but one of the finest pieces of fiction I have read in a long time.