It’s hard to imagine a book being shocking these days. Novels like The Catcher in the Rye, once considered obscene by many, now seems quaint and prudish in comparison to some contemporary works. And Fahrenheit 451, which also sparked a backlash, is now part of a dystopian canon that feels vital rather than something to avoid. There are obviously still parts of the world – towns, cities, entire nations – where some books are still banned, including the two mentioned above. The Handmaid’s Tale is another perfect example, where despite its critical acclaim and popular success (particularly with the Hulu series), it’s still banned in certain places.
Nevertheless, Philip Roth’s Our Gang shocked me, which is all the more impressive because it’s a political satire, and it’s hard to imagine a political book crossing any line given the times we live in.
But to be clear, Our Gang is not shocking because it uses bad words or evokes obscene or outrageous situations. It does all this and more, but what jarred me most was how brutal and intelligent the satire itself was. That, and the fact that it was so much fun to read.
I had mixed feelings going into this book because I have mixed feelings about Roth himself. There are a few of his books I enjoy and would highly recommend (particularly American Pastoral), but the two things I’ve never liked about him is that he recycles plots and themes so often and, at times, indulges in graphic and expletive-laden prose that feels like all it’s trying to do is shock.
Our Gang doesn’t suffer either of these problems. First, this isn’t another story about a Jewish kid in Newark who is either exactly like Philip Roth or, in some cases, literally is Philip Roth (I believe in Operation Shylock, there are even two Philip Roths). I don’t want to get sidetracked into a discussion of how broad or narrow his novels are, but I don’t think there’s any argument that he isn’t nearly as thematically ambitious as other writers. Roth writes what he knows, and he does it better than anyone, but what he mostly knows is himself.
Our Gang doesn’t include any Roth at all. It’s focused entirely on eviscerating Richard Nixon in a series of chapters that involve his stand-in, Tricky E. Dixon, in conversation with people or giving speeches (one of which takes place in Hell). The satire, as I said, is brutal, devastating, and unflinching. For all we hear about people going too far these days in their criticism, it all seems charming compared to how Roth indicts Nixon as nothing less than a soulless monster. But the brutality of the dialogues are all the more effective because of how clever they are. Imagine Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (where he proposed eating Irish babies as a way of lambasting British policy toward the Ireland) if it were stretched to novel-length and weren’t quite so modest.
Given that the country – and the world – is pretty much in agreement that Nixon was awful, it’s easy to overlook how radical it was to write something so acerbic while he was still president. But whether you know a lot or nothing at all about Nixon, Our Gang is a fast, fun read that is as funny as it is smart.
So go read it. Now.