Since the publication in 1995 of his prize-winning Sabbath's Theater, Philip Roth has been writing one unsparing novel after the other about the imminent physical or spiritual end of a life. The best of them — Sabbath's Theater, Everyman, The Dying Animal, American Pastoral, The Human Stain — leave the reader shaken, having either glimpsed losses to come or confronted known grief afresh.
Written in what could be dispassionately called the later stages of Roth's life, these raging works — in which the author has distilled his pugnacious, ravenous love for humanity, women, New Jersey, work and family — are more alive than the lyrical stories of ballyhooed writers a third his age.
In his newest novel, Indignation, one of the greatest talkers in American literature (does anybody else writing prose today sustain a conversation with the reader as beautifully as Roth, with his whirlwind of shouts, whispers, riffs and exposition?) revisits the objects of his affection and confoundedness.
Marcus Messner, the beloved only child of a kosher butcher and his wife, is driven to clawing exasperation by his father's raw fear for his safety. Being a sober and studious college student, Marcus is baffled by his once-stable father's maddening worry, and decides to put as much distance between his parents in Newark and himself. He transfers to Winesburg College in Ohio. (And as anyone who's read Sherwood Anderson's landmark 1919 Winesburg, Ohio, short story cycle knows, nothing ever goes wrong in that part of the state.)
Set against the Korean War, Indignation is partly about the waste and stupidity of combat, but more pointedly about young lives bumbling up against unbending authority. Marcus finds himself unexpectedly butting heads with the college dean when he asserts the right to pursue his happiness, on campus and off.
As its title implies, Roth's surprising novel is shaped by certain understandings: the acceptance that our fragility can invite a crushing, compromising protectiveness and that life can be as pitiful as it is precious. The latter is a concession Roth's elderly protagonists have been forced to accept in his most recent novels.
What puts Indignation among the best of those books is its revelation that even youth lives with that same stark specter. It's a hard truth made all the more bracing by Roth's depiction of young men and women tangled in the joy and the fury of life.