Front Row at the Movies
Helping of Jewish Guilt
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
It is his twenty-ninth book, Philip Roth once again deals with a nice Jewish boy’s guilt over sex.
“My fiction is about people in trouble,” says the 83-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner.
“Indignation” follows that pattern of trouble, telling the story of “a high-strung, standoffish Jewish bookworm” facing his freshman year at Winesburg College.
Despite warnings about “Roth’s Hollywood track record,” producer Scott Rudin bought the film rights to “Indignation” prior to its publication. And first-time director James Schamus has given us his version of the story.
“Indignation” is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.
Here we meet Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a student clashing with the dean of men (Tracy Letts) over the requirement to attend chapel. As the boy explains, “I don’t prefer to practice one religion over another.” That is to say, he’s an atheist. He even quotes from Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” essay to prove it.
The dean pries into the boy’s social life, eliciting the fact that Marcus has gone on only one date. But what a date it was for this sexually inexperienced butcher’s son from New Jersey. Pretty but fragile Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) has bestowed a gift that leaves him confused. And then she gifts him again when visiting him in the hospital where he’s recovering from an appendectomy.
But Philip Roth doesn’t believe that life gives us happy endings. Spoiler alert (the book was published eight years ago, so you’ve had enough time to know this): Marcus gets kicked out of school, drafted, and killed in combat in Korea. Matter of fact, he’s dead even before Roth (or Schamus) started telling us this story.
God’s punishment? Can’t be if Marcus was an atheist, right?
James Wolcott in his review of the book in The New Republic dubbed it “The Fatal Handjob.” As Wolcott summed it up, “Consciousness survives the fall through death’s trapdoor, leaving Marcus suspended in hazy eternity to contemplate and rue what went wrong with his life.”
That is to say, Philip Roth knows how to dish out kosher helpings of Jewish guilt. And nothing makes the celebrated author feel more guilty than undeserved sex.