Indignation

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Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

If not for the humbling experience of watching his sister Phoebe ride the carousel, Holden Caufield—who ultimately returned to his parents—might have wound up like Marcus Messner, the angst-ridden narrator of Philip Roth’s latest novel, Indignation. After getting thrown out of school, Messner is drafted and, at 19, killed in the Korean War.

This all happens before the book starts. Marcus tells his story from a void that seems like hell, desperately trying to make sense of the life he lost. The sheltered only son of a kosher butcher in Newark, Marcus grows up unnerved by the animal blood that spills in his father’s shop. He escapes to Winesburg College in Ohio, but campus traditions, Midwestern values and a doomed romance only further embitter the taciturn Marcus. Several meetings with a concerned, albeit meddlesome, dean eventually end in Marcus’s expulsion, whereupon he is quickly snatched up by the military and sent to Korea. There, he sees plenty of human blood.

In its brevity and subtlety, Roth’s beautiful but deeply sad story reads like a fable. Unlike many of Roth’s intellectual heroes who reject the worlds that they grew up in, Marcus’s alienation stems from his sensitivity—he can’t stomach anything that doesn’t meet his narrow expectations, can’t stand the ugly motives and paradoxes that surround him wherever he goes. Roth manages to make his hero’s demands of a simple, logical existence seem justified. But he also pulls the carpet out from under Marcus’s narrative with a touch of wisdom: It is life’s inherent contradictions that we must accept, lest our indignation overwhelm us.

Roth reads Tue 16.

Buy Indignation now at BN.com

By Philip Roth. Houghton Mifflin, $26.

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