Here's a reliable, though overworked, story idea: A good kid moves from a small town to the big city and is overwhelmed, and possibly undone, by his new environment. Indignation, the latest in Philip Roth's recent shower of short novels, convincingly reverses that plot's traditional course. Set in 1951—at the height of the brief, bloody Korean War—it follows Marcus Messner, a Newark butcher's kid, from a happy stint at community college near his parents' home to Winesburg College, a small Ohio school governed by codes and mores alien to him.
Roth never reveals what, if any, relationship his Winesburg has with the blighted town of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, but for Marcus, it similarly becomes a place of thwarted hopes. For him, it takes far less than a lifetime. Transferring to Winesburg to escape his father's toxic overprotectiveness, Marcus soon finds a different kind of paternalism at work. Conspicuously placed with three of the school's few Jewish students, Marcus encounters one distraction after another—noisy roommates, pushy fraternities, mandatory chapel sessions praising "Christ's example"—as he attempts to focus on his studies. But the greatest distraction is largely of his own choosing: a tumultuous relationship with Olivia, a fellow student whose sexual adventurousness fascinates and scares him.
With Indignation, Roth creates a punchy illustration of how repression works like a slow poison. Penned in by restrictions and expectations—some from those around him, others rooted in his own psyche—Marcus feels driven to rebel, even though he knows he risks expulsion, shame, and war service.
From this, Roth builds to a pair of remarkable setpieces; one involves a debate on Bertrand Russell, the other a snowbound explosion of consequences from the campus' pent-up sexual energy. If there's a problem with the book, it's that the rest of it sometimes feels loosely gathered around these moments. With Roth's unsparing gift for observation, however, that isn't much of a problem, and Indignation works beautifully as a vivid depiction of the far side of the '60s, when war raged and a conservative atmosphere threatened to dampen the freedom that's supposed to be an American birthright. Whether that past remains happily irretrievable, Roth lets readers answer for themselves.