This is a flawed but near-great alternative history of the United States in the first years of World War II that manages to be incredibly compelling and affecting even while you suspect the premise might be slightly implausible. However, Roth is such a good writer that you kind of stop caring and if his handling of the resolution were better, it might be among his greatest novels.
WARNING: Mild spoilers do follow.
Roth imagines an alternative history where Charles Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt in Roosevelt’s bid to get elected to a third term. That might strike us as a bit implausible, given how handily Roosevelt won his third presidential election but what makes it more believable in 2018 is President Donald Trump. Though Lindbergh bears very little resemblance to Trump beyond being a famous person without policies, Lindbergh’s followers in the novel are eerily prescient of Trump’s supporters. Though I am loathe to use the word “character” when describing a group of people, it sure feels like Roth has nailed something inherent in the character of Americans with this novel. He published this 12 years before Trump was elected but, if you replaced Jews with Latinos and Muslims, it’s tempting to see it as an allegory.
Roth’s real success, though, is writing about bad things happening to minorities through the eyes of a child. Roth’s vision of childhood is so relatable, so well-done that it transports you to the world of a Jewish child in 1940s Newark. This might seem like an odd comparison but it’s almost like a A Christmas Story in how effective it is at capturing childhood. (This book is dying for a film adaption before Trump is out of office, I would suggest a sinister A Christmas Story as the correct approach for that adaptation.) Honestly, this aspect of the book is so good it makes me want to forgive the slight implausibility of the premise (only slight) and the ridiculous resolution.
So, to that resolution, the near-fatal flaw of the novel. Roth must have found himself with too much book he wanted to keep and the potential problem of using chapters and chapters to resolve the book the same way he started the action. The novel is already relatively long for him (far as I know) and I guess he decided he wanted to resolve the action in a chapter or two. So what we get is a chapter that presents the return to normalcy through the news-wire. This device might have worked were it not for the part about Lindbergh’s wife’s speech. It’s this speech which feels like a major, major cheat after all the reader has gone through. It is way too easy to wrap up this story with essentially a deus ex machina. It’s a huge let down and it almost ruins an otherwise great novel.
That being said, the book is still worth reading. In this day and age of a whole bunch of white people feeling like they can be publicly racist without social consequences, a novel like this helps people see others for who they really are: just people. I know a guy who genuinely believes in the Jewish conspiracy nonsense. This is not because he’s a mean person, but because he was raised in a country that believed it, and continues to get his news from people who perpetuate it. (It doesn’t help that he doesn’t know any Jews, who should easily dispel this form him, if humans were rational.) I wish I could convince him to read this book and I wish it would convince him that Jews were just people, unfortunately he wasn’t interested in the novel and I think even if he read it, what I know about human psychology tells me he’d just decide it was part of the conspiracy. (I mean, the author’s name is Roth, how could it not be?)
Not his best novel, but for most of the book, it is a great novel.
7/10 only because of that stupid deus ex machina.