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Philip Roth: Fact and Fiction

Saturday, October 15, 2005

A Saturday musing. The Upper Left Edge was under a high-wind warning from 9pm last night to 8am this morning but the winds never arrived.

Sometime in the 1980s I all but quit reading fiction because there was so much I needed to learn -- history and current political events, mostly. Now that I no longer keep company with senior government officials and scholars in America, Europe and the former Soviet Union, I find I have more time for a good story in print. For that I know I can count on Philip Roth.

In his latest, The Plot Against America, aviation hero Charles Lindbergh has defeated Franklin Roosevelt's attempt to win a third term as president and is making peace pacts with Hitler and Hirohito, causing much alarm to American Jews, including one particular family in Newark, New Jersey.

For Roth, the details matter. When describing a character or a place once sentences alone can tell entire stories. Here's a random example, from page 45 of the hardback:
Alvin was twenty-one in 1940, renting a furnished room upstairs from a Wright Street shoeshine parlor just around the corner from the produce market, and by then, working almost two years for Steinhem & Sons, one of the city's two biggest Jewish construction firms -- the other was run by the Rachlin brothers.
I'm guessing that not once again will Roth mention Wright Street, the shoeshine parlor, the produce market, Steinhem & Sons or the Rachlin Brothers. But all those places and people are now in my head, creating the Newark of the narrator.

Fact and fiction. Perfect.