Marcus is a young man who loves his hard-working father – he just can't live in the same house as him. He's a straight-A student who can't get on with his room-mates at college, so he keeps asking to be moved. He's the object of beautiful Olivia's attention, but doesn't know how to respond to a young woman who's more sexually experienced than he is.
Roth's ability to run the gamut of adolescent confusion and give it urgency and importance (instead of making fun of disproportionate teenage responses to minor crises) might at first appear the consequence of setting his story during the Korean War. Marcus is constantly worrying that if he fails his studies, he'll be called up and killed on the battlefield, just as his father is permanently full of fear at anything that might harm his son or lead him astray. But ironically enough, it's not the overhanging threat of war that gives this story its impetus.
Marcus's refusal to join college fraternities makes him more of an outsider, when already, as one of the few Jews on campus, he's outside the social norm. His refusal to be a part of the team comes to a head during an interrogation by the college dean, who wants to know why he prefers to be alone.
The American ideal of team-playing, more important than getting straight As (an ordering of priorities that Marcus finds incomprehensible) has been critiqued by Arthur Miller, among others, but Philip Roth's portrayal of that ideal as an inevitable need arising from living in a nation made up of immigrants, is sympathetic as well as damning.
While he resists romanticising the fate of the lone individual, Roth cannot let those in authority off the hook. Marcus is condemned to join in. This angry story of an angry young man, beautifully and simply told, is not easy to forget.