American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997) Vintage (1998) 432 pp
I’m hooked. The more Roth I read the more I’m convinced he is the greatest American writer alive today (and there are several great ones). But Roth — Roth’s books are in another league. Freshly finished with The Prague Orgy (the last book in what Vintage calls “Zuckerman Bound” containing The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, and The Prague Orgy) I decided to not move on to his latest “Zuckerman” novel, Exit Ghost, published last year. Instead I chose to finally read Roth’s Pulitzer Prize winner: American Pastoral. American Pastoral also — and I was so happy — includes one of my newest favorite literary characters of all time, Nathan Zuckerman, albeit in a different role.
While “Zuckerman Bound” and Exit Ghost are written about Nathan Zuckerman, American Pastoral is written by Nathan Zuckerman, creating a sophisticated and effective framing devices. The first section, “Paradise Remembered,” is Zuckerman’s reflection on how this book came about. It’s a beautiful introduction to the themes of the novel that are displayed and flayed and displayed again in a different light and then stripped down with stunning compassion which leads to chilling effects in the last two parts, “The Fall” and “Paradise Lost.”
Zuckerman has aged a little more than a decade since I last visited him (only a month ago) in The Prague Orgy. It’s his forty-fifth-year high school reunion. Events and encounters lead him to reflect on his youth and, in particular, on his boyhood hero: Seymour “the Swede” Levov. The Swede is among the generation of Jews who were finally able to take full advantage of what America offered; he is descended from immigrants who had nothing, from a second-generation Jewish family that started building up a foundation, and from a father who has built a successful glove making factory. His grandfather and then his father had to work hard, and now the Swede is set up for an easy life; he even takes on the physical features of an all-American boy. Zuckerman idolized the Swede. He was the perfect athlete who was raised to an even higher status since he was enacting these great athletic feats while the country engaged in World War II. As is usual with Roth (but he still surprises me with his ability), the narrative looks at the Swede’s status from many angles: as a blessing, as an insignificant fact, as a piece of nostalgia, and as a curse.
And it all began — this heroically idealistic maneuver, this strategic, strange spiritual desire to be a bulwark of duty and ethical obligation — because of the war, because of all the terrible uncertainties bred by the war, because of how strongly an emotional community whose beloved sons were dying far away facing death had been drawn to a lean and muscular, austere boy whose talent it was to be able to catch anything anybody threw anywhere near him. It all began for the Swede — as what doesn’t? — in a circumstantial absurdity.
Zuckerman has seen the Swede a few times since childhood, and he’s still struck with awe, still a little giddy. One day not long before the high school reunion Zuckerman receives a letter from the Swede asking him to meet him in a New York City restaurant. The Swede’s father has died, and the Swede actually wants Zuckerman to consider helping him write a piece about his father. While Zuckerman would never do such a thing for another person, he is too intrigued by the Swede to say no. Zuckerman hopes to get under the surface of this apparently perfect man who has lived an apparently ideal life.
Only . . . what did he do for subjectivity? What was the Swede’s subjectivity? There had to be a substratum, but its composition was unimaginable.
That was the second reason I answered his letter — the substratum. What sort of mental existence had been his? What, if anything, had ever threatened to destabalize the Swede’s trajectory?
Zuckerman, trying to see beneath the at once humble and complacent veneer, is disappointed. Turns out that at the dinner the Swede doesn’t even go into the piece he wants written about his father. They pass a dull evening together, and Zuckerman, in a sense, gets over the Swede. There is nothing going on under the surface. Unless . . .
Unless he was not a character with no character to reveal but a character with none that he wished to reveal — just a sensible man who understands that if you regard highly your privacy and the well-being of your loved ones, the last person to take into your confidence is a working novelist. Give the novelist, instead of your life story, the brazen refusal of the gorgeous smile, blast him with the stun gun of your prince-of-blandness smile, then polish off the zabaglione and get the hell back to Old Rimrock, New Jersey, where your life is your business and not his.
He knows nothing more about the Swede, however, until the high school reunion comes around. There he runs into the Swede’s younger brother, Jerry. Only a bit of information is passed from Jerry to Zuckerman, but it’s enough. A tidbit about the Swede’s daugher shows Zuckerman how wrong he was to pass off the Swede as just another superficial human being, too ideal to be interesting. As happens at large reunions, Jerry and Zuckerman are separated before Zuckerman can satisfy his curiosity any further.
Though Zuckerman has little to go on, he delves into writing a book about the Swede’s life, focusing on the period of the 1960s and Vietnam and the early 1970s with Watergate, when, he postulates, the Swede’s daughter has most destabalized not only his life but the life of his wife, the neighbors, the community, and the United States. It is a fantastic, virtuosic plummet into the heart of America.
I can’t remember a book that caused a more visceral reaction to me. Roth does not pull punches, and he is not shy about making the reader feel complicit. Because of this, I can’t say I’d recommend American Pastoral to everyone despite the fact that I consider it one of the greatest novels of the last century. It deserves to be looked at with an open mind and with an understanding that Roth is not putting anything in here for gratuitous effect, and the effect is often devastating. I swear, when the Swede encounters Rita Cohen to pass information to Merry I felt like I was there. My mouth went dry. Like the Swede, I too wanted to run out of the room I was in. I felt like the Swede, and I admired Roth even more for his ability to do that. Indeed, Roth, more than any other writer I know of, has the ability to pull me into the emotions the characters are feeling. I feel transported, like the Swede:
The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral — into the indigenous American berserk.
Another striking aspect of the novel is its treatment of Newark, a city I’m drawn to since I spent a summer working as a judicial intern in the Federal Court, which sits right in the area described in the novel, and I still frequent Newark’s streets. Roth, like Zuckerman and the Swede, grew up in Newark in a time when it had a better reputation. Here we get a gritty, up close shot of the city following the ugly and destructive riots of 1967; forty years later, these riots still affect the city and its abysmal reputation. Over the past few years, Newark has been attempting to revitalize itself. It has a classy performing arts center and a brand new state-of-the-art stadium. The homicide rate is dropping, finally. But this scene is still familiar:
Along this forsaken street, as ominous now as any street in any ruined city in America, was a reptilian length of unguarded wall barren even of graffiti. But for the wilted weeds that managed to jut forth in wiry clumps where the mortar was cracked and washed away, the viaduct wall was barren of everything except the affirmation of a weary industrial city’s prolonged and triumphant struggle to monumentalize its ugliness.
The book doesn’t dwell in the urban areas, though. The Swede has moved from Newark to the rural community of Old Rimrock. It’s a stark contrast: Newark is primarily inhabited by Democrats and immigrants, Jewish or Catholic; Old Rimrock is primarily Republican and inhabited by wealthy WASPs. The Swede’s generation was one of the first to change these stereotypes. With his Irish Catholic wife, the Swede moves thirty miles west of Newark, and allows Roth to explore yet another side of America.
I’ll admit that my proximity to the landscape has made me like this book more than I perhaps would have otherwise, as I suspect is the case with Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. Still, American Pastoral is more layered than the clichéd onion. In many ways, that layering is the major motif in the novel: there are glove factories, face-lifts, paintings that look like their painters were trying to “rub out” the paint rather than apply it. We see it in the narrative structure which has a fictional author writing a fictional account about a real person. We see it in the way Roth plays with the layers of time. We see it in the layers of meaning in each scene. This is an intimate look at a family that spreads out into an astounding discussion of America and her history.