Powells.com & The Morning News Present


Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin)

The Plot Against America

vs. The Inner Circle

T.C. Boyle (Viking)

Judged by Maud Newton

Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America opens with a warning: “Fear presides over these memories, perpetual fear.” Blame a weakness for apocalyptic stories, if you like, but I experienced that fear myself, from the moment I started reading. The novel, an aging narrator’s account of his boyhood, presents an alternate U.S. history in which aviator hero and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindberg defeats FDR on an isolationist platform and winds up in the White House. Newark’s Jewish community dreads this result. The apprehension turns to panic when whole families fall prey to the government’s relocation efforts and anti-Semitic riots erupt.

Also set during World War II, T.C. Boyle’s The Inner Circle focuses on Alfred Kinsey, “Dr. Sex,” famous for his unprecedented research into and exposure of Americans’ sexual practices. Narrated by Kinsey’s fictional protégé, John Milk, The Inner Circle depicts Kinsey as a manipulative narcissist bent on sleeping with, and controlling, close associates like Milk. I’ve flipped through many Boyle stories in The New Yorker, and read a handful, and because I came away with little lasting impression, I was surprised by how much I like this book. A stand-in for many men, Milk endorses sexual experimentation for himself and everyone else, except his wife. He reveals his scientific studies and erotic escapades in a gripping first-person narrative that is, like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, replete with father issues, and by turns egotistical and self-flagellating.

Although Boyle’s book is more consistent—Roth’s story, frankly, derails toward the end—The Plot Against America easily wins this contest. Last year Roth warned readers against viewing the book as “a roman clef to the present.” Yet in the same essay he characterized the sitting U.S. president as “a man unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation like this one,” and said Bush’s presidency reaffirms that “all assurances are provisional, even here in a 200-year-old democracy.” As Plot’s Philip recounts accusations mounted by Lindberg’s detractors, and then describes the President’s typical response—crowd-pleasing feats of aviation followed by three-line platitudes that fail to address the evidence against him—the distracting, Doublethink tactics of the present administration spring naturally to mind. The child’s eye and the man’s empathetic perspective combine in Roth’s book to present a wholly plausible scenario in which democracy, at the mercy of an unquestioning media, evaporates to accommodate the agendas of those in power.


Judge: Maud Newton
Age: 33
Types of books you tend to read frequently:
Literary fiction that emphasizes psychological realism and danger, trauma, or turmoil.
Types of books you rarely read:
Tea-towel fiction.
Favorite book of all time:
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene.