Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


Indignation by Philip Roth








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Certain episodes in life seem to change everything. If only ….

Philip Roth takes this notion forward in disproportionate ways in his 25th novel, Indignation. Protagonist Marcus Messner decides to go to college in Winesburg, Ohio, after his father, a kosher butcher, becomes overly protective. One thing leads to another, and everything changes in this finely written novel. Here’s an excerpt, pp. 18-21:


I was assigned to a dormitory room in Jenkins Hall, where I discovered that the three other boys I was to live with were Jews. The arrangement struck me as odd, first because I'd been expecting to have one roommate, and second because part of the ad­venture of going away to college in far-off Ohio was the chance it offered to live among non Jews and see what that was like. Both my parents thought this a strange if not dangerous aspiration, but to me, at eighteen, it made perfect sense. Spinelli, the shortstop—and a pre-law student like me—had be­come my closest friend at Robert Treat, and his taking me home to the city's Italian First Ward to meet his family and eat their food and sit around and listen to them talk with their accents and joke in Italian had been no less intriguing than my two-semester survey course in the history of Western civilization, where at each class the professor laid bare something more of the way the world went be­fore I existed.

The dormitory room was long, narrow, smelly, and poorly lit, with double-decker bunk beds at ei­ther end of the worn floorboards and four clunky old wooden desks, scarred by use, pushed against the drab green walls. I took the lower bunk under an upper already claimed by a lanky, raven-haired boy in glasses named Bertram Flusser. He didn't bother to shake my hand when I tried to introduce myself but looked at me as though I were a member of a species he'd been fortunate enough never to have come upon before. The other two boys looked me over too, though not at all with disdain, so I in­troduced myself to them, and they to me, in a way that half convinced me that, among my roommates, Flusser was one of a kind. All three were junior English majors and members of the college drama society. None of them was in a fraternity.

There were twelve fraternities on the campus, but only two admitted Jews, one a small all Jewish fraternity with about fifty members and the other a nonsectarian fraternity about half that size, founded locally by a group of student idealists, who took in anyone they could get their hands on. The remain­ing ten were reserved for white Christian males, an arrangement that no one could have imagined challenging on a campus that so prided itself on tradition. The imposing Christian fraternity houses with their fieldstone facades and castlelike doors dominated Buckeye Street, the tree-lined avenue bisected by a small green with a Civil War cannon that, according to the risque witticism repeated to newcomers, went off whenever a virgin walked by. Buckeye Street led from the campus through the residential streets of big trees and neatly kept-up old frame houses to the one business artery in town, Main Street, which was four blocks long, stretching from the bridge over Wine Creek at one end to the railroad station at the other. Main was dominated by the New Willard House, the inn in whose taproom alumni gathered on football week­ends to drunkenly relive their college days and where, through the college placement office, I got a job Friday and Saturday nights, working as a waiter for the minimum wage of seventy-five cents an hour plus tips. The social life of the college of some twelve hundred students was conducted largely be­hind the fraternities' massive black studded doors and out on their expansive green lawns—where, in virtually any weather, two or three boys could al­ways be seen tossing a football around.


Whether you’re a fan of Philip Roth or not, you’re likely to enjoy reading Indignation.  If only ….


Steve Hopkins, October 20, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the November 2008 issue of Executive Times


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