An ordinary man finds that his life has been made extraordinary by the catastrophic intrusion of history when, in 1968 his adored daughter plants a bomb that kills a stranger, hurling her father out of the longed-for American pastoral and into the ingenious American berserk.
What on Earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?
Only that their American Pastoral is bought at the expense of the "indigenous American Berserk", and their touchpoints--God, country, the conscientious capitalist, rock-ribbed decency and the blameless refusal to develop their own depths--cannot possibly withstand the physical stresses of the geopolitical, psychosocial, and sexual sexual sexual tensions brought home to roost by the old techniques of control finally hitting hyperspeed. Vietnam confronts the Swede Levovs of America with their hypocrisy, and they can swallow the blow--it's in their nature to be happy, to be okay.
But the children can't. Not the children of this world of boundless promise. They are entirely incapable of accepting the price in hate and blood and neo-imperialism. Too spoiled, you know. Never got the chance to work out their fucked-up guilt with a world war. It all unravels with the children. And so Swede Levov's child starts to stutter, starts to crack, and then she goes and blows up a mailbox and a decent country doctor and her family and the suburban dream and the promise of infinite growth. And that's where this story begins--in human hell.
And the scary thing is that it's not just the historical moment. With deftness, Roth marshals repressed sexuality and miscegenation and being a Jew in America and the tension between the social contract and building something for yourself and . . . the simple decline of age, and just overwhelms the reader with these shockwaves of chaos. There is so much chaos. And with tenderness he embraces his poor Levovs and says, How could they have been other than what they were? And with burning sardonic eyes he says, They were doomed from the start.
I'll never forget that reunion moment with Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator, and the girl who wouldn't let him take off her bra in high school. They fall into each other's arms in tears and she says she should have let him do it and you think, We're all just humans in this together and all we can do is cling to each other in the valley of the shadow of death. And for me--I was no sports hero, but in my own quiet Canadian way I've skirted the valley of the shadow of golden-boyness and the gift for decency and joy that is the result of everything coming easily. And like the Swede, ignored the darkness under this blond life for so long, the need to support and underpin your loved ones and friends and take their pain into you, the impossibility of coming to terms with your own ineffectuality in the face of the chaos, the chaos, and the inability to hate anyone for it except yourself for failing . . . how does the man built to help and care come to terms with the irreducible kernel of satanic rage?
I don't want to end like Roth does, with a question. I want to blink back tears and proceed on an assumption, and not an integrated grand-narrative assumption like the Swede's, which the slightest shock--or tiniest mortal blow--can bring down. I look at the women who dominate the denouement here--the demonic Marcia Umanoff, the sunny, hollow Jessie Orcutt, and the speech pathologist Sheila Salzman, whose role in the plot is pivotal and whose actions have a complex mix of good and ill effects upon which no summary judgment can be passed. But what she does? She doesn't run or hide or lie. She thinks, and resolves, and tries.
I'm gonna be a speech pathologist too. But broader than that: I think to be a healer is the highest human calling. To heal the specific ill is a prayer against the unhealable infinitude of human pain.
Waaahh, my daughter didn't turn out exactly like me. Waaahh, the American Dream is dead. Waaah, politicians are unscrupulous. Waaahhh, war isn't fun. Waaahh, why can't everyone just love and respect 'the greatest generation' and not make us responsible for anything? Waaahh, why can't I be a Jewish WASP? Waaahhh. Ugh. What a horrible follow up read for me on the heels of The Human Stain. I won't give up on Mr. Roth, but this novel was so long, drawn out and simultaneously self-pitying and self-congratulatory that I had to force myself to finish it.
The high school athlete/hero (Swede Levov), who marries Miss New Jersey, who runs a successful business and lives in his dream home has a less-than-perfect daughter (Merry). She stutters. She's overweight. And, she becomes a violent anti-Vietnam War protestor. After she blows up the local post office, killing the town doctor, and goes into hiding, her mother breaks down and her father obsesses around what he could have done to prevent the tragedy his family now lives.
This is a deeply moving book; one of Mr. Roth's best. It examines parenting, not only in the case of Swede and Merry, but also the relationship between Swede and his own father (Lou) and between Swede and his brother.
Perhaps Roth is saying that this Jewish "superman" whose athletic prowess, upper middle class comforts, perfect shiksa (gentile) wife depict him as having made it in the eyes of all the other jewish kids who grew up with and worshipped him...perhaps it is all illusion and that the curses of life that befall us all hit him so hard that it destroys all he has accomplished.
The adored son, Swede Levov, who can do no wrong, enters his father's business and it appears that the only act of independence he can muster in standing up to his father's dominance is to marry out of his religion; the lower middle-class Catholic beauty pageant queen, Dawn Dwyer. When confronted with the horrors of what his daughter has done, Swede turns for solace to his younger brother, the philanderer Jerry Levov, a sucessful cardiologist, living in Florida and working on his own 3rd marriage. Jerry, a high school classmate of Nathan Zuckerman, seething with the aftermath of the short-end of the stick in this sibling rivalry, revels and responds with cold hard truths, anger and resentment.
Not to be ignored is the painful depiction of the heartache parents experience when one of their own goes bad. What a great loss it is when the child you gave life to, whom you love and adore, turns away in hate and crosses a line which leaves them lost for all time.
Zuckerman appears briefly, in a brief flash forward, when the Swede approaches him to help write a eulogy to his departed father. This alter-ego of Roth's is almost pleased to see that even the Swede, that perfect hero, has a moment of doubt and remorse.
Hidden in the horror of his life having been blasted apart by his daughter's terrorist act is the fact that 20 years later he has found some comfort in a new marriage and 2 more children. Still handsome, glamorous and rich he is still the Swede to others but he no longer glides on air above the rest of us.
Another hidden meaning is that this is an American tale of the "pastoral" life, gone bad, and that the events herein, could happen to any one of us.
Indeed this is a rich and complex tale reflecting the turmoil both this family and America experineced during this time in history. As depicted by Roth it is a masterpiece.
Summarizing this would be like making a movie adaption out of it (which, God knows how, they did). Imagine all pain, anger and confusion infused into one man and his family, imagine everything going wrong for someone who worked hard for the exact opposite, who deserved it perhaps least of all.
Also, Roth is a language-magician.
Sometimes it seems almost like the most ordinary prose but Roth has a real talent for keeping momentum going forward. He also has a keen ear for dialogue and in this particular book it is Swede's father Lou and to a lesser extent Swede's brother Jerry and Merry herself who lead the way. A question that strikes me is--is this an ordinary family for their time?--and I can only say yes and no. It is a remarkable book though and Roth is without a doubt as important as any living writer living in the United States today.
Except for a tedious scene in a glove factory, this book is superbly executed and timely. It deals predominantly with the Swede’s young daughter and her opposition to the war (Vietnam), her subsequent trouble with the law, and her estrangement from her family. It is a dark picture of what can happen to a sensitive child with empathy for a faraway land being bombed to smithereens by her country. This empathy gets misplaced because it is so repressed. She has nowhere healthy to express herself and so she ends up destroying her family and her own life. Leaving her a confused and scared child out on her own.
Roth succeeds in never descending into preaching or pitying and the story is told with a wonderful sense of touch and pacing. In my opinion this is Roth at his finest. I read Portnoy’s Complaint when I was in my early twenties and felt little affinity for it. Roth did not seem to able to paint an unlovable character with any pathos. But I had heard such good things about his later works (particularly this and “The Human Stain”) that I persisted, and I am glad that I did. Both works (and this one is the superior of the two in my mind) were wonderfully written with an eye for detail and character that brings the stories to life. Both are told in an almost documentorial fashion despite Roth’s use of Zuckerman as narrator. They are small slices of tragedy in modern day America beautifully rendered. This is a strong compelling book, and I recommend it highly.
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“The Blind Assassin” by Margaret Atwood
“The Human Stain” by Philip Roth
Greatly created characters and a compelling story that gives insights into the American minds and thoughts. 5 stars.
How can I explain why I didn't like this book. I have no interest in critizing the book itself, which I think is very powerful. It's my reaction to it I'm trying to understand. It's something like this: in essense this book is social commentary as fiction, verging on political. It's not a basic novel, it has a point to make. And all this stuff about the Swede and the accidental crisis he creates himself and all his mistakes, all of this is just a vessel in route to that point. I'm not sure Roth intends his meaning to be so clear, but that's how I see it.
Once I started to think I discovered the "point" of novel, then I couldn't really enjoy it anymore. There was nothing left to do except slog through each awful event.
The novel opens with a long framing device in which Roth’s writerly alter-ego, Zuckerman, introduces us to the Swede. The Swede is almost too good to be true, and not surprisingly cracks in the façade soon begin to emerge. At that point the frame of Zuckerman is dropped and the novel continues in revelatory fashion from the Swede’s perspective. That has the effect of making the frame appear to have been superfluous. No matter. By then the rants are in full flown against LBJ, the war in Vietnam, capitalism, anti-capitalism, Nixon, intellectualism, almost each character, against the narrator (the Swede) himself, and more.
We follow the Swede from his origins in Newark to the superficially idyllic and pastoral setting of Old Rimrock, with his near-Miss-America wife, Dawn, and their stuttering daughter, Merry. Merry’s impulse to rant is nearly matched by her speech impediment. It is an articulate inarticulateness, with explosive consequences, that is mirrored by other characters, and, possibly, by Roth himself. We see pyrotechnical displays of language but I fear it may be mere display. As ever there is no counter-balance, and the reader is left with the suspicion that despite piercing insight, Roth has missed something equally obvious. Or at least that is how this reader reacts.
Yes, at times it crawls. There's no clear ending. Things seem to occur for no reason. This is life as we know it, right?
The style is unusual, moving from here to there with no real direction. Especially because of the first section, which involves the "author's" decision to write about Swede through his own eyes. The second section moves back and forth through the history of the characters. And the third culminates in a disastrous dinner party in one night.
Personally, I've struggled with Roth before. I've been rather disappointed by many of his books. But this one was completely and utterly captivating.
Begins very slowly, and I was worried I'd started something I couldn't bear to see to the end, but takes an early twist and starts to get very strange and very intense. The insight into the misguided American Dream is devastating, and the epic, loping tangents a pleasure and a pain to read. This is really quite beautiful.
My reading of this book is that it is a very personal statement about what life brings. There is the perfection we can often see in youth, but that perfection is an illusion. Don't try to embrace it and hold it. Because there is another wholly unexpected event coming along that will disrupt it and, very likely, blow it to the sky. I suppose this is a very cynical view of life, but as spoken in the voice of an aging novelist and focused on the life of a high-school hero whose best attempts often end in failure or total loss, it feels -- as I noted -- like a very personal, lonely lament of a life shaped by harsh realities and disappointments. More of a "coming-to-terms with what I've seen" than "this is a lousy life and don't expect to be happy." Others may see this point differently.
This book is beautifully written but also terribly overwritten. I felt bludgeoned by paragraph after paragraph that said the same thing -- again, in gorgeous prose. That said, this is a book that is worth the time. Philip Roth is an American treasure, even when the message he conveys is melancholy.
The story is accurate historically for the Newark riots of 1967, Watergate, the Deep Throat movie (the first x rated movie that we all flocked to see publicly) as well as the Black Panthers, Weathermen and Angela Davis. LBJ is president and the US is deeply invested in sending soldiers to Vietnam. The main character, Swede, is based on a real athlete that attended Weequahic High School. I really wondered if this school was made up. The "equa" in the middle made me think that the author was saying something about these Jewish kids attending school in the US. I do think there is more in this story than the historical events. It is a story of Jewish American who marries an Irish Catholic girl and the changes in the family from the grandparents who came to the US, sold gloves on the streets and finally established a factory business. The family erodes or changes from all Jewish, to the boys marrying Gentile Girls to the daughter who is not Jewish or Catholic and abandons all the family values and hates her family for having a profitable business.
The title American Pastoral, does it refer to the immigrant experience for the Jew who came to the US and found peace and the life without persecution? Towards the end, the author mentions Thanksgiving as the true American Pastoral. A time where everyone can come together whether they are Catholic, Jewish, or Gentile. Thanksgiving really is the best holiday. I liked this story. It was engaging and the characters are well developed. You forget that this is just Zuckerman's imaginations and that we really know very little about Swede or his daughter Merry. Compared to the other book by Roth that I've read, Plot Against America, I liked this much better. I will read more of Roth at some point.
As just one example: I am not Jewish, but have noticed in certain writings something uniquely poignant in the Jewish love for America immediately after World War II. This was the country that had taken in many Jews' parents and grandparents in a way never before experienced, I believe. For the first time they were not outsiders, but simply immigrants in a land full of immigrants. And for the first time, every opportunity--in this nation of bounteous opportunities--was open to them. It is not surprising that the name "America" would become almost a hymn on the lips of many American Jews in this period, that they would develop an unparalleled love for their country. As all of America basked in a cornucopian economy and the righteous sense that our own good works had entitled us to it, American Jews were, perhaps, "Ultimate Americans." So it is also not surprising that, like everyone else, they also gave little thought to the idea that the richness of life here was too well fed by our military industrial complex and exploitation of Third World nations.
The protagonist, Seymour "Swede" Levov, certainly does not think about these things, and therein lies his downfall. As Amazon reviewer Ian Muldoon so aptly notes, the central question of the book is whether it is acceptable for Levov to to accept that he is one of the lucky ones and simply enjoy his place in time and history, or whether his good luck also carries an obligation. An inherently decent man, Levov does not look beyond his own life to wonder if it impinges on the lives of others. But his daughter cannot feel so sanguine. Merry has not had the good fortune of Seymour and his wife to be thought "perfect": She grew up with a terrible stutter, over which her beautiful parents agonized. Is this what gave her the ability (willingness? determination?) to see the fissures in the edifice they revere? In any event, she sees the fissures yawning, and her answer is to place sticks of dynamite in them. And later to withdraw so far from the world that she scarcely eats so as not to "destroy plant life," and will not even wash for fear of "harming the water." She has started by demolishing the world around her, and is now obliterating herself. Miraculously, the stutter that at one time "terrified" Levov is gone... as she herself soon will be.
AMERICAN PASTORAL is the story of a beautiful nation that, about 40 years ago, let some part of its best self slip away. As the "Ultimate American," Levov is the perfect symbol. As he thinks, so thought we.