Philip Roth is at his coronary-inducing, adrenaline-triggering best when he writes about being an American Jew. His under-rated 1993 novel Operation Shylock scythes its way into the relationship between Judaism and Zionism better than any other novel I know. So when I found out that his new novel was a dissection of American anti-Semitism - a "what if" novel where the notorious Judaeophobe Charles Lindbergh becomes US President in 1940 and keeps America out of the Second World War - I was almost rendered incontinent with excitement.
The novel is written as a memoir of this America that never was, and Roth uses his own family and his much-described childhood in Newark, as his skewed canvas. Roth is seven years old when Lindbergh becomes President. His father is a decent working-class Jewish immigrant who idealises America. This man resolutely refuses to see that he - and the Jews - are slowly being degraded into second- class citizens. At every stage, he insists: "This is our country, dammit," even when Von Ribbentrop is dined extravagantly at the White House, and every "little fascist" in America feels emboldened to express his anti-Semitism. When this "insane stoicism" does fracture, the narrator explains: "It was the first time I saw my father cry. A childhood milestone, when another's tears are more unbearable than your own."
Roth's mother - one of the few female characters in Roth's canon not tainted by his misogyny - panics sooner and harder. She can see that America's Jews are being "abruptly thrust back into the miserable struggle from which they had believed their families extricated by the providential migration of the generation before". Roth's older brother Sandy is gradually turned against his family. After a government-sponsored summer on a Kansas farm - designed to "connect the next generation of Jews to the American soil" - he returns cursing his family as "ghetto Jews" and "you people". Fascism politicises even the most intimate relationships.
In this climate, America soon becomes drunk on "the intoxicant of anti- Semitism". A Kristallnacht ravages Detroit. Tyrannies reduce everybody to the status of children; everyone is infantilised by the Great Leader. Because Roth has cleverly chosen to narrate his story from the perspective of a child, we as readers are reduced to this state too.
And we are drawn into complicity with it; victimhood is, Roth knows, rarely a passive condition. Each member of the Roth family - with the solitary exception of Philip's father - is shown to internalise the anti- Semitism slowly suffocating them. …