It's the start of the Korean War, and a working-class Jewish boy, son of a hard-working kosher butcher and a sainted mother in Newark, New Jersey, is suffering the oppression of family. Marcus Messner is 19. He is highly intelligent and studious, has a great interest in, but no experience of, sex and so – true to the Roth canon – he is asking for trouble when he sets out to live in the Gentile world. Part of the trouble that ensues is that he dies. The book is narrated from beyond the grave.
While still alive, he leaves Newark because of his father's obsessive concern for his welfare and safety. "What's this all about, Dad?" "It's about life, where the tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences." This is both a very Jewish thought, and also an old-world thought. Until this moment, Marcus has been happy helping his father out in the butcher's shop, and they have been very close. But he leaves his comfortable local college and enrolls at Winesburg in Ohio, one of those deceptively idyllic midwestern colleges whose chief virtue is that it is 15 hours by car from Newark. It turns out to be a mini-dystopia. Hardly a Jew has crossed the leafy threshold of the place, although a patrician and wealthy Jewish boy called Sonny Cottler tries to befriend him. But Marcus is a loner: all he wants is to get good grades so that he can be enlisted as an officer rather than a grunt, which, he has decided, would be suicidal in Korea.
But – of course – he meets a beautiful shiksa called Olivia Hutton. (Roth's choice of Gentile names often has a kind of touching naivety.) Olivia, against all the constraints of the time and of her background, gives the virgin Marcus a blowjob on their first date. This causes a seismic shock to run through his world-view. When Sonny tells him that Olivia is known for her sexual largesse, and is basically crackers, having made at least one suicide attempt, Marcus is completely thrown.
So what you have is a classic Roth assembly of conflicts. Back at home the parents are in strife, the father becoming delusional, and out in the sticks the young Marcus is making more enemies than friends, including his room-mates. He ends up living all on his own in an unused room. He is summoned to see the Dean of Men, Hawes D Caudwell, who has "a lantern jaw, sparkling blue eyes and a heavy crest of silver hair, a tall man probably in his 50s who moved with the agility of the young athletic star he had been in three sports in Winesburg just before World War One". There are two things to say immediately about this sentence: it is horribly wooden, and it demonstrates the carelessness that has crept into Roth's characterisation in recent novels. Caudwell wants to speak to Marcus about attendance at chapel, which is obligatory, for morally uplifting lectures, but he also has – it seems – an anti-Semitic subtext: the fact that his father is a kosher butcher accounts for Marcus's anti-social tendencies. Marcus, of course, cannot take any of this lying down and, to control his anger, recites in his head the 1937 anthem of the Chinese – honestly – "Indignation fills the hearts of all our countrymen/ Arise! Arise! Arise." Marcus simply asks to be left alone to study and to be a waiter in the tavern, where wealthier students shout "Hey, Jew" at him, or perhaps "Hey, you". Clearly Dean Caudwell is looking for something more WASPishly proactive from him, while Marcus's motto, from e e cummings, is "there is some shit I will not eat".
So the story rushes heedlessly and humourlessly on. Like a miner who puts up no pit props, there is always a danger of the story collapsing behind him, and it does. In another encounter with the Dean, Marcus vomits on his desk, which turns out to be the first signs of appendicitis. He and Olivia are reconciled while he is in hospital and she provides him with sexual services when the nurse isn't looking. His mother arrives to tell him she is leaving his father, but she agrees to stay with him if he will abandon Olivia.
A pantie raid, a very Fifties prank, and in this book a completely pointless episode, turns into a mini riot on the campus, which allows Roth a long rant from the previously undisclosed president of the college whose only function here is to be a mouthpiece for Senator McCarthy. Later, poor Marcus is caught bribing someone to attend chapel for him, on Sonny Cottler's advice, and he is expelled from the university when, as ever, he refuses to eat humble pie. This inevitably leads to his death in Korea as an infantryman. Maybe the novel is his ramblings as he lies in a field hospital under the influence of morphine.
Marcus puts it this way: "What happened next I had to puzzle over for weeks afterwards. And even dead, as I am and have been for I don't know how long, I try to reconstruct the mores that reigned over that campus and to recapitulate the troubled effort to elude these mores that fostered the series of mishaps ending in my death at the age of 19."
Not even morphine can excuse this sentence. The book is a tragedy, but not in the way Roth intended.Reuse content