Books

The Fatal Handjob

By

Indignation
By Philip Roth
(Houghton Mifflin, 236 pp., $26)

College students today, showered with condoms and tastefully preserving their drunken, tonguetapping escapades on Facebook and MySpace for future in--laws and employers, have no appreciation of the sacrifices made by those who came before, the lusty pioneers of the sexual revolution. They take for granted the blowjobs and easy lay-ups made possible through the guerrilla activities of forgotten combatants in the early, undeclared stages of America's war for erotic independence. For such uninformed fun bunnies, Philip Roth's strange new novel may be the perfect back-to-school gift. The protagonist of Roth's latest javelin throw is one such unsung contributor to the eventual overthrow of puritan restraint, an aspiring scholar who earns a minor footnote in the unwritten annals of oral and digital gratification. Roth's designated patsy doesn't actually do that much to light the fuse of the sexual revolution. In fact, he doesn't do anything except lie there in dazed amazement while his date treats him to something special. But every person occupies the solar center of his own story, and although this character's life may not amount to much, it's all he has; or had.

Meet Marcus Messner, the son of a Newark butcher and a portrait of the artist as a young grump. Just as the author's note for Indignation presents a partial litany of the many literary honors Roth has received ("He has twice won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has won the PEN/Faulkner Award three times"), the fruits of unflagging industry and undeviating dedication ("He is the only living American writer to have his work published in a comprehensive, definitive edition by the Library of America. The last of the eight volumes is scheduled for publication in 2013"--eight volumes!), his teenage narrator has his nose pressed so hard to the grindstone that it shoots sparks. In contemporary parlance, Marcus is a grade queen. "Delivering orders and flicking chickens and cleaning butcher blocks and getting A's so as never to disappoint my parents." Disappointed his parents are not. They dote on their boy, beaming like Herschel Bernardi and Shirley Booth in an old Playhouse 90-ish Bronx-naturalism kitchen-sinker. "'You don't know how proud of you he is,' my mother said. 'Everybody who comes into the store-"My son, all A's. Never lets us down. Doesn't even have to look at his books--automatically, A's."'" Pure osmosis!

But when Marcus's father flips out over a stray remark from Mr. Pearlgreen the plumber ("Mark my words, Messner: the world is waiting, it's licking its chops, to take your boy away") and becomes manically overprotective, convinced that his son is hanging out in pool rooms with hoodlums and giving him the third degree whenever he pops through the door, Marcus decides to put major mileage between himself and his worrywart parents, transferring from local Robert Treat College to a small liberal arts college in the farm country of Ohio named Winesburg. Yes, Winesburg, Ohio, the one put on the literary map in all its lonely dolor by Sherwood Anderson, a place where dreams die of deprivation. It's just about the least ideal place imaginable for a high-strung, standoffish Jewish bookworm like Marcus to transplant himself, a poor choice that ignites a chain reaction.

Despite its literary provenance, Indignation's Winesburg owes more to Louis B. Mayer than to Anderson, its campus resembling a Hollywood backdrop "for one of those Technicolor college movie musicals where all the students go around singing and dancing instead of studying." What enticed Marcus into the leafy grove of this letter-sweater operetta? The cover of Winesburg's brochure, which features a pair of Wonder Bread students, boy and girl, strolling radiantly down a grassy hill, the boy dressed in gray flannels, a checked sport shirt, V-neck pullover, and white bucks--an outfit Marcus copies so that he will fit in on campus while remaining inviolably aloof. Despite his Pat Boone get-up (Pat Boone being the prince of white bucks), Marcus has no intention in taking part in snappy production numbers or lending a little intellectual class to the malt shop. He is going to avoid the surface froth and run silent, run deep. He enrolls in a pre-law program, despite having no interest in law. "I hardly knew what a lawyer did. I wanted to get A's, get my sleep."

Following a personal quarantine program, he declines an invitation to join one of the only two fraternities on campus that admit Jews (the others being restricted for "white Christian males"), informing the recruiters that "I'd rather be on my own and study." When his father encourages Marcus to make friends with a fellow Jewish student, a blinding test-tube specimen named Sonny Cottler (who "looked like he'd just finished shooting a scene on the MGM lot opposite Ava Gardner"), he emphasizes what they have in common: "All A's, like you." But Marcus doesn't need or want a study buddy--he can ace it on his own, if only everybody would leave him in peace, which they won't. Indignation takes its title from a Chinese war song, but it is actually exasperation that feeds the novel's steam engine, and not comic exasperation, either.

 

 

Earnestly irritable and irritably earnest, Marcus suggests an aspiring embryo version of Roth's alter ego novelist Nathan Zuckerman, who from his woody retreat in Exit Ghost spurns even the company of a cat in his monkish quest to write unmolested into the last of his days. Zuckerman's near-impregnable buffer zone was made possible by years of literary productivity and a wise real-estate investment that allowed him to nourish his artistic integrity stake at Misanthrope Acres, polishing his austerity. Just starting out, short of money, rudely put upon at every turn ("Hey, Jew! Over here!" bark the frat boys at the inn where Marcus schleps pitchers of beer for minimum wage plus tips, and it's a safe guess that anti-Semitic clods tend not to be fancy tippers), Marcus is a martyr to everyone's infringements on his liberty. A special sore point is the college's requirement that all students, regardless of religion, attend chapel at least forty times before graduation. Marcus resents having to submit to this mandatory quota of "biblical hogwash": "I didn't think it fair to have to sit in a Christian church and listen for forty-five or fifty minutes to Dr. Donehower or anyone else preach to me against my will in order for me to qualify for graduation from a secular institution. I objected not because I was an observant Jew but because I was an ardent atheist. "

Despite Marcus's attempts to hole up like a hermit and skirt below the radar, his Shelleyan convictions and reclusive habits prick the bat ears of Dean Caudwell, a petty inquisitor with a streak of pious concern you could spread like oleo. "But may I ask, Marcus, merely out of curiosity, how you manage to get by in life--filled as our lives inevitably are with trial and tribulation--lacking religious or spiritual guidance?" To which Marcus replies, "I get straight A's, sir." Again with the straight A's. Too young and naive to comprehend the enforcement mechanisms of conformity that it would take massive servings of naked lunch to subvert, Marcus can't understand why his straight A's don't shield him from the naggings and nudgings of those intent on molding him into a Well-Rounded Individual. "I was a straight-A student--why wasn't that enough for all my unsatisfiable elders (by whom I meant two, the dean and my father)?" A page later, "I was a straight-A student. Why wasn't that good enough for everybody?"

Racking up A's across the scoreboard is more than a matter of intellectual pride, bragging rights, overachiever beavering, and fulfilling filial duties ("the sacrifices my family was making to send me away to college made it imperative that I continue to get only A's"). It is also a survival tactic. The year is 1951, the Korean conflict is in full vicious swing, and should Marcus be expelled for low grades or a violation of campus policy, he could "wind up [as] a rifleman in Korea," where the American casualty toll has already topped six figures. So he cracks the books as if a Chinese bayonet is poised at the back of his neck.

 

 

Then, one night at the library, that Larkinesque hotbed of girl students quietly going about their business of driving men mad with their pencil-nibbling concentration, Marcus sets eyes on heartbreak waiting to happen. "She was a sophomore transfer student like me, pale and slender, with dark auburn hair and with what seemed to me an aloofly intimidating, selfconfident manner." Her name is Olivia Hutton and, unlike most of the moo-cow coeds at Winesburg (who are "either wholesome-looking or homely"), she has passed the heavy-petting stage on the dating scene. On a campus where blue balls afflict the majority of male students, leaving even the hardiest among them bent double or leaning against trees from frustration, Olivia's mouth is an angel of mercy. After a classy dinner at L'Escargot, they take a romantic drive to the edge of the town cemetery and park. Blowjobs being an exotic delicacy in the Midwest of the Eisenhower era (or as the great writer puts it, "blowjobs are at a premium in north-central Ohio"), Marcus is dumbfounded when, after a spirited tango of French kissing, Olivia pearl-dives for his penis in the front seat of his roommate's borrowed LaSalle Touring Sedan, a noble chariot that will later play a fateful role in the novel and become "a monument of sorts, in the history of fellatio's advent onto the Winesburg campus in the second half of the twentieth century."

As a bonus, "an allurement too stupendous for a novice to forswear," Marcus comes in Olivia's mouth instead of a nearby hankie, compounding his dumbfoundedment. Like the guy in the old Irish joke who spends five seconds having sex and the next five minutes racing to the pub to tell his mates, Marcus can't resist releasing a bulletin to his roommate Elwyn upon return, announcing, "She blew me."

"Uh-huh," Elwyn said without turning his head from the page he was studying.

"I got sucked off."

"Yep," said Elwyn in due time, teasing out the syllable to signal that his attention was going to remain on his work regardless of what I might take it in my head to start going on about.

"I didn't even ask for it," I said. "I wouldn't have dreamed of asking for it. I don't even know her. And she blew me. Did you ever hear of that happening?"

"Nope," replied Elwyn.

He is a man of few words, our Elwyn, a rarity in Roth's fiction, where so many of the characters seem to have major monologues that they have been saving up all their lives to let fly. Marcus's afterglow dissipates like a smoke ring once he begins mentally dissecting the incident. A passive beneficiary of sexual favors, practically a prone bystander ("[I] looked down at the back of her head moving in my lap as if I were watching someone doing it to somebody other than me"), Marcus manages to invite all the Jewish guilt and anxiety that made the 1950s such a Freudian repast through the magic of introspection. "How could such bliss as had befallen me also be such a burden? I who should have been the most satisfied man in all of Winesburg was instead the most bewildered. " How could a good girl do something so wanton with such nonchalance? What was going on inside that bobbing head of hers?

When Marcus is set wise by the dashing Sonny Cottler that not only was this not Olivia's maiden dip, but that she has earned the unofficial title of the Blowjob Queen of 1951, he careens between outraged confusion and furious gallantry. "Yes, there's the picture of the boy and girl that should adorn the cover of the Winesburg catalogue: me ... being blown by Olivia and having no idea what to make of it." Both adding and subtracting from Olivia's opaque allure and intensifying his aching befuddlement is the razor scar of a failed suicide attempt across Olivia's wrist, a tragic flaw signifying a cross between Dylan's sad-eyed lady of the lowlands and Sylvia Plath. Olivia is the sex-and-death sundae that Marcus can neither save nor resist. "Was it she who emboldened me, or I who emboldened her, or we two who emboldened each other?" For the answer to this and other exciting questions, stay tuned for the next installment of Love's Throbbing Torment.

After Marcus has an emergency appendectomy, Olivia visits him in his hospital room, where he slides back the sheets in raised salute. "Demurely, she lowered her lashes"--who is she, Jennifer Jones?--and wraps her fingers around his upright, calling him "master." Hoo boy. In the flogging frenzy of Portnoy's Complaint, where Roth elevated virtuoso fingerwork to a lyric frenzy, establishing himself as the Eric Clapton of literary onanism, Alex Portnoy's hand-cranked penis thrashed and flailed across the page like a miniature firehose, capable of blinding a light bulb at five paces. Marcus's pump handle is less bebop in its output, but equally able at achieving indoor arc and altitude: "She hadn't even really to begin, because I had already ejaculated high in the air, and down over the bedsheets the semen showered, while Olivia recited sweetly, 'I shot an arrow into the air/It fell to earth I knew not where' and just as my nurse walked through the door to take my temperature." Should this nurse in a starched white bonnet report Marcus's gusher to the proper authorities, ratting him out to Dean Caudwell, his career as an A student would slam shut and spell expulsion. "For that one quick stroke of Olivia's hand, my reward would be Korea."

 

 

Twice in the novel Marcus reports that his anger and his erection rose in tandem, and the barrel of nearly every hard-on in Indignation is loaded with belligerence. The pleasures bestowed by an Olivia pale before the ballistics of young men whacking off with mean gusto, having a point or two they would like to make. Masturbation here is not a make-do substitute for coitus, a tension reliever, a closed-circuit event; it is a form of assault weaponry, a grudge fuck without the fuck, a desecration with a sticky signature attached. Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" becomes the rape of the sock when Marcus's room is ransacked by a former roommate, a homosexual aesthete with the all too flossy name of Bert Flusser, who avenges himself--and how!--over Marcus's smashing of one of his cherished classical phonograph records. "Directly at my feet was a single sock turned inside out. I picked up the sock and held it to my nose. The sock, congealed into a crumpled mass, smelled not of feet but of dried sperm. Everything I then picked up and held to my nose smelled the same. Everything had been steeped in sperm."

Yes, his wardrobe and living quarters have been thoroughly flussed, but this solo invasion is simply a warm-up act for the all-out wank riot that would enter local infamy as "the Great White Panty Raid of Winesburg College." It begins with an innocuous snowball fight during a November blizzard and escalates into a battle royal between packs of rowdies ("There were flecks of red blood in the clean snow from where some of them had been cut by flying debris, which now included textbooks and wastebaskets and pencils and pencil sharpeners and uncapped ink bottles"), mushrooming into a Walpurgisnacht bacchanal with drunken, horny boys storming the Winter Palace of pootie-tang: the women's residence halls. As female students scurry for cover, frat boys answering the call of the wild plunder the dressers and bureaus for white panties, which are sent winging out the window to the quadrangle below, some of them bearing personal greetings: "two freshmen and one sophomore, all of whom were among the first to be expelled the next day ... masturbated into pairs of stolen panties, masturbated just about as quickly as you could snap your fingers, before each hurled the deflowered panties, wet and fragrant with ejaculate, down into the upraised hands of the jubilant gathering of red-cheeked, snow-capped upperclassmen" The barbarians below craft their own merriment. "A large-breasted snowwoman had been built and bedecked in lingerie, a tampon planted jauntily in her lipsticked mouth like a white cigar, and finished off with a beautiful Easter bonnet arest atop a hairdo contrived from a handful of damp dollar bills."

This outrage against everything decent and prudent brings the president of the college steaming into port like a gunboat. He is President Lentz, a cigarchomping blowhard nicknamed "the All-Powerful Stogie," who stubs out his burning scorn on the collective forehead of these pathetic excuses for young men--"Is there not one of you who thought to defend the female residents?"--like some self-made big shot in a Sinclair Lewis novel. You horny baboons, he booms, where's your gratitude, your respect, your decency, your honor, your knowledge of current events? "Beyond your dormitories, a world is on fire and you are kindled by underwear." Stogie has no tome for such hijinks. Because where will this "barbaric pursuit of thoughtless fun" end? Imitating the stunted thought processes of the panty bandits and their accomplices, he mocks, "'Let's go crazy, let's have fun! How about cannibalism next!'"

Well, there'll be no Donner Party re-enactments on this campus, not on President Lentz's watch. "Human conduct can be regulated, and it will be regulated!" He is closing the coffin lid on this chapter of shame. "The insurrection is over. The rebellion is quelled. Beginning tonight, everything and everyone will be put back into its proper place and order restored to Winesburg. And decency restored. And dignity restored. And now you uninhibited he-men may rise and leave my sight." Professor Lentz would have been the perfect role for Charlton Heston in his late prime, a blazing order of ham.

 

 

Indignation is the most schematic and set-piecey of Roth's recent novels, a parable of instant karma with an ironic coda that is almost Updikean in its pertness. Early on its theme is voiced by Marcus's father, fear-racked after his conversation with Pearlgreen the plumber that something dire is itching to snare his devoted son. What's this all about, pop? Marcus asks. "It's about life, where the tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences." A couple of hundred pages later, after a tiny misstep has indeed led to tragic misfortune, the father's warning is repeated as a reprimand, a rueful told-you-so. Even more than his words, the father's occupation carves out the novel's central lesson. From the butcher shop in Newark to far-flung battlefields, the world is a slaughterhouse, awash with blood, an endless provider of dead meat. "I persisted with my duties, determined to abide by the butcher-shop lesson learned from my father: slit the ass open and stick your hand up and grab the viscera and pull them out." Even Olivia's suicide attempt contributes a red thread in this inexorable factory outflow of butchery. "Had she been successful, had she expertly completed the job with a single perfect slice of the blade, she would have rendered herself kosher in accordance with rabbinical law. Olivia's telltale scar came from attempting to perform her own ritual slaughter. "

Indignation seems a bit bled-out too, a cautionary tale for the already cautious. The penalty meted out to Marcus Messner for not heeding his elders and committing the sin of intellectual pride is so swift and stark that it's as if the sole purpose of the Korean conflict was to punish a guy for getting blown and skipping chapel. The butt of everybody's boring counsel, Marcus learns the hard way the wisdom of such valuable lessons as:

Don't believe everything you see in college brochures.

Listen to your father, even if he is crazy.

Listen to your mother, she only wants what's best.

Beware of strange shiksas bearing blowjobs.

Never leave your socks lying around where someone might jerk off into them.

Follow the rules, no matter how antiquated and arbitrary, or end up as shish kebab.

Try not to vomit in the dean's office--it leaves a bad impression.

 

 

Well, it's all in the execution, and even some of Roth's recent postcards from the abyss bear the entertainment value of a peerless monologist pacing himself before the payoff routine. A former fireballer of speed and velocity whose denunciations and harangues and wicked mimicries mowed down his targets in a hail of exclamation marks, Roth has aged into the classic "crafty lefthander" who now relies on guile, pinpoint accuracy, changes of speed, and pure ornery durability as he glares down from the mound, his storm-cloud eyebrows prophesying rain. But the danger in cutting it fine is that the margin for error shrinks. The slightest loss of control, the least sign of slippage, leaves him exposed, dangling.

Roth's snake-handler's grip showed signs of slackening in his previous novel, Exit Ghost, where Zuckerman's tribute to George Plimpton seemed incongruous, an editorial insertion, as did the Andy Rooney-ish indictment of promiscuous public cell-phone use--peripheral topics that felt atonal to the requiem of Zuckerman's final preparations before his fade through the white door. Brief as Indignation is, it also contains padding. The debate between Marcus and Dean Caudwell over God and atheism borrows heavily from Bertrand Russell's lecture "Why I Am Not a Christian" (which Roth acknowledges, but why serve up a replay?), and when Marcus's mother visits the hospital while he's recovering from his appendectomy, she asks that he read aloud from one of his school books so that she'll know what he's learning: "Read me something, darling." Opening the first volume of The Growth of the American Republic, Marcus begins reading from the chapter about Thomas Jefferson's administration. Mom soon drifts off to sleep, yet Marcus keeps reading aloud until he reaches Harry Truman's tenure. It's a sweet, tender, heartwarming tableau, and frankly I never thought Roth would stoop so low, nor that he would allow his narrator to lilt, "'How terrific,' she said, and captivated me now with a different laugh entirely, a laugh that was laden with the love of life for all its unexpected charms." Of his nemesis, Marcus rues, "Where better than at Winesburg for a Bertram Flusser to luxuriate without abatement in an abundance of rebuke?" It is Flusser who hisses the unhissable: "Then he proceeded toward the door to the hallway, where he turned and hissed, 'I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you.'" These are not the sort of stainless-steel sentences that made Philip Roth American literature's reigning samurai.

I feel a little cheesy treating Indignation with such ingratitude. Roth has given us so much and every novel in his later phase carries the background hum of the novel he is working on at the very moment we are reading this one, accompanied by the awareness that that hum will not go on indefinitely. Each novel, bundled with loss, illness, impotence, unfinished business, unresolved conflict, the scourges of history, and the rough enchantment of Newark in memory's rearview mirror (Roth's childhood Newark becomes less real with each reiteration) is a stay of execution until the last electrical blackout of consciousness, captured most harrowingly in the death notice that ends Everyman. In Indignation, consciousness survives the fall through death's trapdoor, leaving Marcus suspended in hazy eternity to contemplate and rue what went wrong with his life, cut off from everything except the murmur of his own "perpetual remembering." Well, he always did want to be left alone, and he got his wish. It doesn't get more alone than this. Marcus's everlasting reward is a cruel joke, but then nobody has ever denied that Philip Roth is a cruel joker.

James Wolcott is a contributing writer to Vanity Fair and is working on a memoir about New York in the 1970s. This article originally ran in the October 22, 2008, issue of the magazine.

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