American Pastoral

By Philip Roth

My first Roth.

When Zuckerman (Roth’s alter id in a number of his books) goes to a high school re-union, he remembers the Swede, Seymour Levov, a local hero among the Jews of Newark. The Swede is big, blonde and handsome, is a star basketball, football and baseball player…and in the wake of the World War, epitomizes ‘fitting into Americana’ to the Jewish neighbourhood. His father is of a generation of Jewish men, tough, slum-born “for whom there is a right way and a wrong way, and nothing in between…”, “limited men with limitless energy…who keep going despite everything.” His father’s indomitable will drives the Swede to join the family glove making business, foregoing his athletic abilities. He marries a Catholic beauty queen, has a beautiful daughter when Zuckerman meets him decades later, he cannot see any disruption or flaws in the perfectly lucky, happy American life as envisioned by the World War generation. But Zuckerman is wrong.

The seemingly ordinary life has a shadow – and what a shadow! At his high school re-union he meets The Swede’s brother Jerry, a successful surgeon who somewhere along the way gets to be the exact opposite of the Swede – 3 divorces and an acerbic temperament. It is there that he learns of the Swede’s death and it is Jerry who gives him a glimpse into the calamity that blights the Swede’s life.

With just that glimpse, Zuckerman the writer, fashions an American tragedy. The reader does not know how the story really ends for the Swede, but Zuckerman’s vision is of a crumbling of the idyll. When Merry, the 16 year old stuttering sullen daughter of the Swede and the beauty queen indulges in a crazy act of political vendetta that kills a man and makes her a hunted terrorist, Levov’s life comes crashing down. And when he sees her years later renouncing his world, everything his beautiful dream of a world stood for, to turn into a cant-spouting Jain (!!!), he can feel himself coming apart.

It is this coming apart that Zuckerman details out ever so slowly, almost deliciously. The tone of the language swings from a clinical cynicism to passionate rage to a romanticizing of the idyllic; and all along it holds your attention, even when it is not telling a story, when it is just describing – the inhumanity of a leather tannery, the sheer beauty of the Old Rimrock hamlet, the vacuous-ness of the Miss America pageant.

American Pastoral is best described in the 3 section headings of the book – Paradise Remembered, The Fall, Paradise Lost. It reminds me of a Sam Mendes movie – beautiful lovely Americana coming crumbling down, underlying “the assailability, the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things.” The Jewish angle was an interesting one for me – this identity has obviously been an important one in post World War America.

All in all, left me hungry for more Roth.


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