(HOST) Commentator Philip Baruth has often had the unsettling sense that a book has found its way to him at a particular mo- ment. But recently, he thinks the books have started to team up to make their message heard.
(BARUTH) In Philip Roth’s Plot Against America, a fictional Charles Lindbergh defeats F.D.R. in the 1940 Presidential elec- tion. Lindbergh is not merely anti-Semitic in Roth’s speculative world, but crypto-fascist: once elected, he pioneers a program to entice Jewish-Americans out of cities and into “resettlement communities” in the South and the Midwest. Publicly, the admin- istration argues that life in the country will benefit young Jewish children. But seven-year-old Philip and the rest of the Roth family rightly fear the worst.
Although the portrayal of the Roth family is a masterpiece, the true engine of Roth’s novel is the concentration camp. You sense, very early on, the first faint stirrings of a vast machinery; and when those stirrings grow undeniable – the suspension of civil liberties, trains moving thousands of Jews through the Heartland – you finish the last 150 pages of the novel with your heart in your mouth.
I finished The Plot Against America about a month ago, and then I felt I needed to turn to something a little lighter. So I went where I’ve gone many times in my life: to the novels of Sinclair Lewis. I love Lewis for his wit and his heart. So, having read all of his more famous novels over and over again, I decided to pick up one of the more obscure books, It Can’t Happen Here, written in 1935. And pretty quickly, on page one, I realized that someone somewhere must have thought that maybe I didn’t get the point from Roth’s book, and they wanted to drive it home just one more time.
Because It Can’t Happen Here begins with F.D.R. losing the Presidential election of 1936, this time to a glad-handing Senator named Buzz Windrip. And Windrip is also a crypto-fascist, al- though much less crypto than was Lindbergh in Roth’s fictional world. Upon taking office, Windrip elevates his personal jack- booted militia – the Minute Men – to official army status. The stark difference between Roth’s nightmare and Lewis’s, though, is that Lewis’s takes place right here, in Vermont.
Or in the land once known as Vermont: Windrip refashions the country into eight Federal provinces. The northeastern provincial governor has his headquarters on the old Dartmouth College campus. It is from Dartmouth that the orders to construct the local concentration camps are eventually issued.
Prisoners there are never charged, and allowed no due process. They are tortured relentlessly. And it is Vermonters patrolling them, Vermonters selling them food and supplies, Vermonters participating both actively and passively in the liquidation of the unwanted. The point is that we are all at risk, and we are all responsible.
There should be a word for the opposite of “escapist fiction”, a word for fiction that won’t let you escape, that finds its way to you and forces you to deal with unpleasant contradictions in your life, and in your country. Maybe “confrontist fiction”. It’s not the most pleasant way to structure your summer reading time, but then again, I seem to have had no choice.
Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.