Indignation is the story of college aged atheist Marcus Messner. He was raised by Jewish parents during the Korean War. He is not a very likable fellow. Nothing seems to go his way and he spends a good deal of his time complaining about the fact that nothing ever goes his way. He also spends a lot of time talking about how men his age are being Drafted into the army and sent off to be cannon fodder in Korea. So he goes to college to both avoid the Draft and improve his education.
Our hero is a bit of a twerp, to say the least. He thinks he is always right and everyone else is always wrong. It’s entirely possible that he is correct in his believes, but the greater world doesn’t agree with him. I found myself relating to this fairly unlikable kid-a boy who never quit makes it to manhood. A boy who fails to understand that there is more to college than getting good grades, more to life than knowing how to study, and more to love than getting a blowjob.
About halfway through the book, our hero dies and goes to a purgatory where he is alone with his memories and his regrets. He recalls the details of his few sexual encounters, his jealousies, his fights over the many injustices he faces. He remembers his mother and father and the turmoil that their lives become once he moves to some tiny little college town in Iowa or Indiana or Kansas. He can clearly see the events that lead up to his death, can clearly identify the many mistakes and wrong choices he has made in his all too brief existence.
He dies because he is right and everyone else is wrong. It doesn’t matter that he was right and everyone else was wrong-he is still dead. Instead of playing by the rules, he objects to the wrongness of the rules. He never gets the chance to learn that most vital lesson life has to offer-You Can’t Fight City Hall.
Near the end of this tale of the Good Old Days we witness the major college crime of a panty raid on a cold winter’s night. Several boys are expelled over this event, though our hero is not among them. There is a long and rambling speak by the College President in which he tries to shame the student body by telling them that young men are dying in Korea as they were playing in the snow.
One of the requirements of this college is that everyone has to attend Chapel 40 times before they can graduate-and this is the reason our hero’s college life comes to an end. He refuses to attend Chapel, and when he tries to hire someone to go to Chapel for him, he gets caught. He can stay, but he would have to go to Chapel 80 times. He decides to leave and, wait for it, dies in Korea.
After the story is over, we are told that a group of hippies in the late 1960s take over the campus and demand reform-among these reforms is the retirement of the Chapel requirement.
Indignation is a tragedy on ever possible level-nothing good happens to any of the many characters we meet. It’s about as funny as Schindler’s List or Barton Fink. So I am a bit amazed to read the many reviews who talk about how funny it is.
Dick Hill does an amazing job on the audio book, giving each of the characters their own voice and identity. He also does a great job of reading the often long and ponderous sentences Philip Roth is fond of using.