Franklin Roosevelt did not win the 1940 presidential election and lead the US decisively into the Second World War following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 : instead, aviator and anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh triumphed, keeping the US out of the conflict while writing public billets-doux to Hitler. This is the premise of The Plot Against America, an utterly believable ‘what if…?’ story in which Jews, while not being put into concentration camps in North Dakota or wherever, are forced to migrate to Middle America under a government programme designed to break up supposed ‘ghettos’ such as in Newark, New Jersey, where most of the plot unfurls. The novel shares a broad theme with Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle, another alternative history of the war, in which the US is occupied by Japan and Germany. The Plot Against America does not go that far although the fear that it could is palpable: the narrator is none other than Philip Roth as a young boy – this is the geopolitical as intensely personal – as he tries to make sense of the pressures visited on his family when his father loses his status and the mother of a friend is killed in ant-Semitic riots. In his postscript, Roth offers a true chronology of the major figures in the novel, which seems like good manners to both them and the reader. Before that, 30-odd pages before the end in fact, he also reveals the outcome of the Lindbergh presidency and its aftermath. You can do this when you are an eminent novelist who, in his sixties and seventies, has produced much of his best work* and who knows that it is the boy’s tale that really pulls in the reader. The Allies do indeed win. But the book is, among other things, a call for vigilance. All sorts of otherwise grey people detach themselves from the woodwork and live out their grim fantasies when chaos reigns. Best to be on our guard.
* Roth’s flowering in the decade following the mid-nineties – Sabbath’s Theatre, I Married A Communist, American Pastoral and The Human Stain and so on – is one of literature’s most impressive conjuring tricks. I believe this is called talent.