What is it with Jews and sex? While the literature of eros has always been multicultural — from the "Kama Sutra" to "The Decameron," Ovid's "Art of Love" to "The Story of O" — it is hard to think of another culture as consistently, persistently obsessed with the subject as Jewish America, circa 1950-2000. Just take a look at a provocative little anthology of "Jewish writers on sex" that appeared a few years ago under the pitch-perfect title "Neurotica." The table of contents reads like the guest list for the platonic ideal of the Upper West Side cocktail party: From Saul Bellow to Nathan Englander, no one is left out. Even Cynthia Ozick makes a rare appearance at the buffet.
The guest of honor at this mythical gathering, of course, is Philip Roth — not simply because he exhibits this fascination so forthrightly, but also because his work holds out the promise of explaining it. As Melvin Jules Bukiet, the anthology's editor, acknowledges in his introduction: "One can't do sex without Roth; one can't do Jews without Roth.... But what to choose? Pick a page, any page."
This is only a slight exaggeration. Starting with his debut, "Goodbye, Columbus," in 1959, sex for Mr. Roth has always been the most primary source of beauty and terror. Alexander Portnoy defiling the family dinner, David Kepesh transforming from distinguished professor into gigantic human breast, Mickey Sabbath masturbating on his beloved's grave — so many of Mr. Roth's books depict the fear of insatiable sexual desire, and the struggle, heroic or perhaps anti-heroic, to bring it under control. But while Mr. Roth's characters may delight in sex for its own sake — or, at least, long to be able to do so, guilt-free and uninhibited — for their creator, sex is never an end in itself. No matter how graphically it is depicted, sex in Mr. Roth's fiction is always also a metaphor: for the connection (or lack thereof) between two people, for all that is taboo and forbidden in our culture and in our world, for the mysteries (penetrable and impenetrable) of the human psyche.
"Indignation," Mr. Roth's new novel, fits squarely — perhaps too squarely — into this mold. The year is 1951; our protagonist, Marcus Messner, is a Jewish boy from Newark. Until recently, he has been attending a local college and helping his father out in the family's butcher shop, work that requires him to literally immerse himself in the flesh:
It was my job not just to pluck the chickens but to eviscerate them. You slit the ass open a little bit and you stick your hand up and you grab the viscera and you pull them out.... Nauseating and disgusting, but it had to be done. That's what I learned from my father and what I loved learning from him: that you do what you have to do.
We are in trademark Roth territory: the humble family origins, the fascination with blood and guts, the devoted mother, the determination to escape.
Marcus's father has begun acting erratically, obsessed with the irrational fear of losing his son. "What is this all about, Dad?" Marcus asks. "It's about life, where the tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences," his father replies. Desperate both to get away from home and to avoid being drafted for the Korean War, Marcus decides to transfer to the quintessentially American Winesburg College (never known for the subtlety of his allusions, Mr. Roth barely disguises them here), which he chooses, he later explains, based on its location: 15 hours by car from New Jersey.
But Winesburg is no haven of freedom, intellectual or social. Marcus's classes are boring; he makes no friends; he spends his weekends waiting tables in the taproom of the local inn, imagining that the customers are calling "Hey, Jew! Over here!" rather than "Hey, you!" And since the girls on campus are kept under puritanically close watch, there are few opportunities for sexual satisfaction:
Some went out to the town cemetery and conducted their sex play against the tombstones or even down on the graves themselves; others got away with what little they could at the movies; but mostly, after evening dates, girls were thrust up against the trunks of trees in the dark of the quadrangle containing the three women's dorms, and the misdeeds that the parietal regulations were intended to curb were partially perpetrated among the elms that beautified the campus.
But the only "misdeeds" possible under such circumstances are "fumbling and groping," and so the boys are plagued with blue balls: "ejaculation, that most pleasant and natural of remedies, was the ever-elusive, unprecedented event in the erotic career of a student libidinally at his lifetime's peak of performance."
It is Marcus's ejaculations — both physical and verbal — that get him in trouble. First is his date with Olivia, a coed who is a quintessential Roth heroine: beautiful, brainy, and possessed of a dirty mind. A carnal free spirit who seems to have flown in from some future decade, she stupefies him with an act of unsolicited oral sex. Poor Marcus, a repressed child of his time, is so confused by this that he cannot face her the next day. Is she a whore or a goddess? He can never quite decide. In a beautifully depicted moment of conflicted desire, he kisses her signature on a letter to him, then licks at the ink until it disappears: "I had drunk her writing. I had eaten her name. I had all I could do not to eat the whole thing." Could there be a clearer statement of the connection between writing and sexual frustration?
Soon afterward, Marcus — a fervid, Bertrand Russell-quoting atheist — gets into an altercation with the dean over the chapel requirement that ends with him vomiting all over the dean's office. (The fact that this turns out to be a symptom of appendicitis does little to detract from its obvious implications: Marcus is never going to fit in here, and if pushed too far he will literally explode, befouling the rarefied atmosphere.) In a somewhat preposterous attempt to console himself during the argument, Marcus sings the Chinese anthem in his head: "Indignation fills the heart of all our countrymen / Arise! Arise! Arise!" Indignation, he reflects, is "the most beautiful word in the English language"; but it is hard to find the beauty in Marcus's rage at an unjust world, which has a sour tone reminiscent of the elderly Nathan Zuckerman. "I was a straight-A student," he thinks.
Why wasn't that good enough for everybody? I worked on weekends. Why wasn't that good enough for everybody? I couldn't even get my first blowjob without wondering while I was getting it what had gone wrong to allow me to get it. Why wasn't that good enough for everybody? What more was I supposed to do to prove my worth to people?
This rage, again, is of a piece with the self-righteous anger of so many of Mr. Roth's protagonists: Portnoy rebelling against his castrating mother; David Kepesh agonizing over his absurd metamorphosis; Nathan Zuckerman, in his old age, cursing his impotence. It's a rage for all seasons and all circumstances, now querulous and self-pitying, now an existentialist despair at the limitations of the world. Marcus's indignation will continue to build over the course of the novel, ending in a final outburst with terrible consequences (and a final explosion of blood and guts).
If we've seen a lot of this before, it doesn't really matter — up to a point. Mr. Roth is a master magician who can make the same old rabbits do new tricks. At times he seems to be delighting in his own skill: Parts of "Indignation" have a gentle, lighthearted tone that has been absent from some of his other recent novels, particularly the portentous "Exit Ghost." And the relentlessly explored theme of butchering is at once an original and a natural path into the human condition, even if its treatment — particularly the vomiting scene — can sometimes feel a little juvenile, like the outtakes from a gross-out movie. After all, Mr. Roth has always been deeply interested in viscera, in the organs most essential to human function: the heart, the stomach, the genitalia.
But if the ingredients for the "Philip Roth novel" are expertly (if a bit too neatly) mise en place, they are not investigated here so much as scattered. This short novel has the rushed feeling of being hastened to the finish line. Moments of tension are left unresolved, forgotten. A deus ex machina delivers Marcus from a wrenching promise extracted by his mother — the novel's only true moral conflict. A dramatic turn in the plot, pitched early in the novel as a genuine epiphany, turns out to be of little thematic importance — just the source of some vaguely existentialist reflections that feel jarringly out of place in this deeply down-to-earth novel. And is it not absurd that the novel's climactic outburst of untrammeled sexual desire, its terrifying expression of the male id unleashed, is a panty raid?
"You do what you have to do," Marcus tells himself repeatedly, whether the unpleasant task at hand is eviscerating chickens or attending chapel. (Might it apply, also, to the act of writing novel after novel, year after year?) A cognitive dissonance arises between his determination to make good and the alternate worldview, the view of his father, in which "one's most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result." In the novel's final rush of rage, this perversely fatalistic worldview is the one that triumphs. It's disappointing, after all these years, to see Philip Roth — of all writers! — struggling to convince us that our deepest desires amount to nothing more than explosions in the dark.
Ms. Franklin is a senior editor at the New Republic. She is writing a book about the literature of the Holocaust.