By Philip Roth
256 pages; Houghton Mifflin
If Philip Roth were more lovable, he would have been universally recognized as the premier American novelist of the past 50 years. Unfortunately, he is not lovable—worse, he is almost invariably right. Indignation (Houghton Mifflin), his astute new novel, is about a young man named Marcus who is, like Roth, a Jew from Newark entering college in the early '50s and, also like Roth, a prickly and unforgiving skeptic. It is the story of Marcus's year at the fictional Winesburg College in Ohio—the reference is to Sherwood Anderson's dark portrait of adamantly naive Americans, Winesburg, Ohio—a year that exposes him to the absurdity and the perils of adult life. The Korean War dominates the book; at one point the conservative president of the college upbraids the male students (after an ill-fated panty raid): "Beyond your dormitories a world is on fire, and you are kindled by underwear." Since this accusation holds even truer now than when Roth depicts it being uttered, we can see again his shocking ability to bring history to bear on the present. As always, the prose is well built—sinewy and graceful—and, as always, the wit is sharp as a German knife. There are simply no novels by Roth in which you cannot detect the hand of a master.