In a plot that evokes the author’s earlier work, Roth (Exit Ghost, 2007, etc.) focuses on a young man’s collegiate coming of age against the deadly backdrop of the Korean War.
The book has a taut, elegant symmetry: A nice Jewish boy named Marcus Messner from Newark, N.J., reaches the turbulent stage where he inevitably clashes with his parents, his butcher-shop father in particular. After continuing to live at home for his first year of college, Marcus, the novel’s narrator as well as protagonist, feels the need to emancipate himself by enrolling in a college as unlike urban New Jersey as possible, one that he finds in Winesburg, Ohio. Whatever of his Jewishness he is trying to escape, he discovers that his ethnicity provides the stamp of his identity on the pastoral campus, where he is first assigned to room with two of the school’s few other Jewish students and soon finds himself courted by the school’s lone Jewish fraternity. There’s resonance of the culture clash of Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and the innocence of The Ghost Writer (1979) in the voice of this bright young man, who isn’t quite experienced enough to know how much he doesn’t know. The novel reaches its climax—in a couple of senses—when the virginal Marcus becomes involved with the more experienced Olivia, whose irresistible sexuality seems intertwined with her psychological fragility. Can Marcus be Olivia’s boyfriend and still be his parents’ son? Can he remain true to himself—whatever self that may be—while adhering to the tradition and dictates of a college that shields him from enlistment in a deadly war? Is Winesburg a refuge or an exile?
A twist in narrative perspective reinforces this novel’s timelessness.