Thursday, April 23, 2015

American Pastoral, by Philip Roth

As American Pastoral opens, Roth's alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman is reminiscing about the athletic super star from his Newark High School, Seymour "Swede" Levov, a Jewish boy with Scandinavian good looks. Seymour, from Zuckerman's point of view, has had a charmed life--he starred in three sports at school, served briefly in the Marines during World War II, married a former Miss New Jersey, took over his father's lucrative glove business, and moved into a beautiful home in Old Rimrock. A dinner with Seymour, in which he talked incessantly about his three sons, shakes Zuckerman's heroic view of the man but it is not until he runs into his old friend Jerry, Seymour's younger brother, at a class reunion that he realizes his view of Seymour is completely wrong.

As Zuckerman learns from Jerry, Seymour has recently died of prostate cancer; more startling is the fact that, at the age of 16, Seymour's daughter Merry bombed the local general store and post office, killing a doctor dropping off a letter on his way to work. That event created a cataclysm in Seymour's life and a nearly equal disruption in Zuckerman's perspective. Realizing how profoundly wrong his version of Seymour's story was, Zuckerman decides to reimagine Seymour's life using the new information he gained from Jerry. That reimagining is the second part of the book, and it is a powerful story of how the  tumult of the 1960s affects one upper middle-class family--his wife Dawn's evolution causes her to reject her beauty queen past, race riots in Newark cause labor problems in the glove business, his stuttering daughter's rebellion turns to violent protest against the war in Vietnam.

After the bombing Merry disappears, Dawn suffers a breakdown, and Seymour is extorted by a young woman claiming to be in contact with Merry (he also has an affair, which we don't learn about until late in the story). Five years later, he finally finds Merry who has become a practitioner of Jainism and lives in squalor in Newark. She reveals facts about her time on the run that shake Seymour to his core: that the bombing in Old Rimrock was not her last and that she was raped multiple times. The evening--and story--end with an anguished Seymour trying to hold it together at a dinner party thrown by his wife. (We never learn how that Seymour became the older mundane Seymour bragging about his sons.)

Roth is a master, and both parts of the novel are both thought-provoking and emotionally engaging. While many novelists have used the class reunion as a plot device, those efforts usually feel contrived; Roth's reunion is revelatory, both for Zuckerman and the reader. What goes on in the life of the heroes of our youth? We don't know--and, in truth, never really will. But with our eyes opened, we can imagine the connection between those lives and the events we all have experienced.  Sadly, Roth's sex scenes still make me cringe, as does his attitude toward women. Nonetheless, American Pastoral is definitely worth your time.

Favorite passages:
The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive; we're wrong.

Yes, alone we are, deeply alone, and always, in store for us, a layer of loneliness even deeper.

. . . all that rose to the surface was more surface.

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