Philip Roth is almost perfect (there’s just the problem of the ending) in his pacing of this enthralling little story. And although it’s very short, and bitterly angry in tone, it’s instantly one of my top three Roth titles. For what it’s worth, these are the other Roth novels I’ve read, in order: The Human Stain, American Pastoral, Portnoy’s Complaint, Goodbye, Columbus, The Breast, and The Ghost Writer.
Indignation is about 19-year-old Marcus Messner, who, seeking independence from his father, leaves home and his family’s kosher butchery for college in Ohio. The book is set in the 1950s, when Roth himself was in college.
Marcus is a “good boy” who has never been with a girl, never consumed alcohol, and always studied hard, but once he gets to college an unlucky series of seemingly minor events befalls him, landing Marcus in the Dean’s office repeatedly. Roth’s punchy dialogue is in full force here, such as when Bert Flusser, a vindictive, cruel roommate, calls Marcus, “Such a nice little boy. So clean-cut. So upright… So ready and willing to be a human being.” When Marcus justifiably demands to know, “And what’s wrong with being a human being!” Flusser tells him, “Everything. Human beings stink to high heaven.” Marcus, as does the reader, becomes enraged with the people around him and eventually loses his cool. And that’s when it all comes to a head.
The book is very short, and though I suppose it could have been a full-length novel, it needn’t be, and Roth proves it here by truly painting the entire image of Marcus Messner’s simple life in a brief novella-length tale.
Everything is so crystal clear, and yet just as we would hope, the few bits that are unclear or confusing in the events feel that way to us because they feel that way to Marcus; his surprise (a blowjob?! why, he wonders, would a girl give me a blowjob?) is our surprise, and his chagrin and rage with his father is ours. We cannot help but share the feelings of our protagonist when we see firsthand just how unreasonably his father behaves toward him, or just how frustrating Bert Flusser is to live with.
The story goes quickly—I finished it in one day of hungry reading, and so will you—but it’s so exciting, and vivid, that you will likely pick it right back up and blaze through it a second time.
I especially love the early sections about Marcus working in the butchery with his dad. The graphic, visceral accounts of the meat and the carving process play off of the bonding that Marcus and his father enact as they work, and the result is a very real location that you can literally picture before your eyes, mapped out for you by Roth.
My only beef is with the ending, which is such a ruthless downer that it feels perhaps a bit too mean. Then again, if Roth wants to destroy his characters so cruelly, that’s his prerogative. Indignation is a terrific read.