Our Gang, by Philip Roth, New York: Random House, 1971, Pp. 200, $6.95.
Take most noted contemporary writers out of the milieu in which they write, and you have famous authors writing best sellers—but of questionable literary quality (e.g., John Updike and his COUPLES). Take Philip Roth out of the milieu in which he usually writes, and you have the same Philip Roth, just in a different milieu—quality, style and approach remain the same.
Mr. Roth writes in what can be described as the "Jewish genre." Within this popular genre, Mr. Roth has his own style, characterized by broad, sweeping "blow-ups" of life and wild, improbable caricatures of people. Both GOODBYE, COLUMBUS and PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT, his heretofore two biggest sellers, exemplify the Roth approach and style. Both took a small bit of life and embellished upon it until it reached absurdity. People laughed with these works because within their absurdities, that small bit of life was always recognizable.
And so Mr. Roth continues with this approach in his latest book, OUR GANG. He leaves his "Jewish genre" for a more difficult area, that of political satire; but the change in no way impeded his ability to enlarge life and turn people into caricatures. OUR GANG is a political satire, but it is closer in style to Max Sennet than to Jonathan Swift—such is to be expected of a work by Philip Roth.
The book is based upon the last days of President Trick E. Dixon, and has a supporting cast which includes Vice-President What's-his-name; Attorney General Malicious. Secretary of Defense Lard; former President Charisma and his remarried wife Jackie Charisma Colossus; former President Lyin' B. Johnson; Senator Hubert Hollow; Governor George Wallow; New York Major John Lancelot; Reverend Billy Cupcake; F.B.I. Chief J. Edgar Heehaw; and newsman Harry Reasonable and Erect Severhead. Needless to say, subtlety is not the tour do force of Roth satire.
The story centers around an anti-abortion speech supposedly delivered by the "real" Nixon at San Clemente on April 3, 1971. Given the truly ludicrous contents of this speech, Roth must have had an easy time of converting it into low comedy and high satire. Laughs were meant to be evoked, and laughs do come.
Despite the laughs, the book does leave one with the lingering feeling that Roth aimed and hit a bit too low. As to this claim of foul, there is little contested. ATLANTIC MONTHLY (December 1971, p. 81) quotes Roth as saying that OUR GANG was meant to be in "bad taste." But then, Roth sees all great political satires as being in "bad taste." Attention is called to Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," a treatise in how to prepare Irish children in order to be edible.
Yet, Swift, in his attempt to create change, always maintained a distinguished "objectivity" in his prose. Roth has no such "objectivity" and his goals in writing the piece are obsured, if not, perhaps, nonexistent. His dislike and distrust for Nixon as a man is embarrassingly evident throughout the book. There is no attempt to create a change in policy, economic, international or otherwise. There is just a broad contempt for Nixon the human being, which culminates in the chapter entitled, "The Assassination of Tricky." Obviously, Mr. Roth is not advocating the assassination of President Nixon, but to many people, this chapter will be distasteful, though, to be honest, to others, it will be quite amusing (Tricky is stuffed, nude, into a baggie full of water).
Philip Roth's "bad taste" in writing this book will undoubtedly be the subject of much debate, especially on the talk shows on which he is sure to appear in order to plug his book. But, bad taste aside, it is a funny book, worth its price when it comes out in paperback. And if the book falls short within Roth's own comparison with the works of Jonathan Swift, then it is at least equal to the political comics of Al Capp.
Neal Millard is a Los Angeles lawyer. He received his J.D. degree from the University of Chicago Law school in June, 1972.