Saturday, May 22, 2010

Indignation by Phillip Roth

Marcus Messner chooses a midwestern college based on the photo depicted on the cover of the Winesburg promotional catalog found in the Newark Library. What a typically naïve act for a teenager! If he’d had the guidance of a counselor, his story surely would have gone in a different direction.

Here’s an excerpt from the Library Journal Review:

/* Starred Review */ “In 1951, Marcus Messner flees his father's steadily debilitating dementia and the overwhelming constraints of family life in Newark, NJ, to the greener and more pastoral setting of Winesburg College in Ohio. After years of working in his father's butcher shop, where he learned to do everything well no matter how much he hated it, he steps into a Kafkaesque setting in which such a lesson is useless in the face of the demands of the college's authority figures. After encounters with arrogant and lazy roommates who won't allow him to study, confrontations with the college dean, and the heartbreak of a failed sexual affair, Marcus learns that he can best survive various challenges in his life—even the book's most surprising challenge—by acting indignantly in the face of them.”

I found Marcus’ sense of indignation completely understandable, and yet he let his emotional reactions become his undoing.

Almost twenty years after this story takes place I knew another Jewish boy who left his home to attend a conservative midwestern college... in Illinois. He was not the son of a kosher butcher, but the son of a merchant who ran a prosperous department store in a conservative Illinois town of 20,000 residents. This boy was a good friend with whom I had attended dances and parties. We both went off to Illinois State University after high school. The Viet Nam War was the backdrop for our times, much as the Korean War haunted the minds of Marcus and his classmates in this book. Changes in the military draft since the fifties meant that not every male would be sent right off to war if he was not in college. (The lottery system was such a capricious manner of determining draft status!)

After we began college, Mike and I drifted apart as we discovered a world of people who came from cities different from our little hometown. Isn’t that what most college students are seeking? Isn’t that the purpose of attending a large university or one in a distant location? At this stage of my life, I regret that I haven’t always been more willing to explore beyond my comfort zone. Those times when I’ve gone into the ‘uncomfortable zone’ have been rewarding. They have pushed and expanded my little world!

Back to the novel… Indignation is a character study within a historical timeframe and I recommend it for anyone who can appreciate the “impact of history on the lives of a vulnerable individual.” (From the publisher’s review)

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