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American Pastoral ()


Pulitzer Prize (Fiction) (1998)

Until this book, I had really hated everything I'd read by Philip Roth.  In particular, I thought it was disgraceful that Portnoy's Complaint (read Orrin's review), which is a genuinely vile book, made the Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century.  But I stumbled across a couple of favorable references to American Pastoral by conservative commentators--including David Horowitz who called it the best book of the year.  So I figured I'd give him one more chance.  This book is a vast improvement over his other work and, if editors still did their jobs, it might even have been a great book.

Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's fictional alter ego, introduces the tale of Seymour "Swede" Levov, star athlete and all-around golden boy of Weequahic High School in the 1940's.  After serving in WWII, the hard working, eminently decent Swede marries Miss New Jersey 1949, takes over his Dad's glove factory in Newark and lives a seemingly idyllic upper middle class existence, even moving to a spacious estate in Morris County.  But as we soon find out, something horrible happened to the Levov's which puts the lie to this fairy tale version of the American Dream.  In 1968, Swede's beloved teenage daughter Merry, who had become increasingly politicized and radical in the midst of the Vietnam War years, planted a bomb at the local post office--it's not even a government building, just an adjunct to a country store--and the explosion killed a man.  Afterwards, she went on the lam and Swede only saw her once more, a bedraggled, twice-raped, snaggle-toothed, Jainist parody of his image of his innocent lost daughter. Despite his earnest efforts to lead a good life and be an honorable man, he must confront the fact that he raised a terrorist, whose bomb blew away not merely a building and a neighbor, but Swede's own grasp on the meaning of life.

All of this is okay in so far as it goes.  The relationship between Swede, the decent man of the 50's, and his rebellious daughter, rejecting everything about his life, is a serviceable allegory for the breakdown of American culture in the 1960's.  But there are several problems with the novel.  First, there are structural problems.  Zuckerman introduces the story in a too long set piece revolving around a High School reunion.  Then he seems to be narrating the story as a kind of omniscient voice, or has Roth himself taken over?  It's really hard to tell and, since the Zuckerman character does not actually appear as an actor in the subsequent events, this framing device is really asymmetrical and annoying.

In addition, if the opening section is merely too long, the body of Swede's tale is ponderous and repetitive and the final scene, set at a dinner party, is very nearly interminable.  If star authors still had folks who actually edited their books and told them--"Hey, you need to cut this and rewrite this"--these problems could easily have been obviated.  Ditch the Zuckerman shtick and trim 150 pages and you've got a much tighter story.

But the final problem is spiritual and I'm not sure Roth is capable of dealing with it.  In the final sentence of the novel, he asks us to consider the Levovs and what has befallen them:

    And what is wrong with their life?  What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?

This is a question that, wittingly or not, he has answered within the pages of the book.  For the succeeding generations of the Levovs have depicted a very real progression (or regression) that occurred in Western life over the last century.  Swede's father, opinionated and obstinate as he may be, at least has a set of concrete moral beliefs which he adheres to ferociously.  Swede and Zuckerman grew up in a world that was the product of these beliefs.  Roth's palpable nostalgia for a world where everyone read the same books, saw the same movies, rooted for the same baseball team, etc., suffuses the book with the same air of melancholy and loss that animated Doris Kearns Goodwin's Wait 'til Next Year (see Orrin's review).  But when they grew to adulthood, folks like Swede and Zuckerman and Goodwin somehow lost the courage of their convictions.  At one point in the book, Roth discusses how WWII was about no one dominating anyone anymore and realizing that everyone's' beliefs are equally valid.  Huh?  Here I had always thought that it was about America and Britain imposing liberal democracy--which is after all ultimately just the political and economic manifestation of the Judeo-Christian tradition--on unwilling miscreants.  But Roth has demonstrated by example the weird disconnect that his generation suffered.  These were people who had no compunctions about nuking the Japanese until they accepted our way of life, but went all wobbly legged when it came time to discipline willful sons and daughters.  Somehow, and it seems to have been a function of the mainstreaming of Marxist ideas, they came to believe in materialism as a religion.  It became sufficient to provide material goods and a comfortable life, as Swede does.  Meanwhile, everyone was free to do their own thing, believe whatever they wanted and go their own way.  Is it surprising then that the nuclear family, our shared cultural heritage and Merry's bomb all exploded?  These folks look back adoringly on childhoods of community, shared experience and moral certitude, but the childhoods that they provided their own offspring were relativistic, materialistic and atomistic--no wonder their kids turned out so awful.

But it is unclear to me whether Roth understands these implications of his story.  His narrative voice is so diffused and the story rambles so, that it is hard to determine whether he has merely identified the disease or actually understands its causes.  Certainly the favorable comment by conservatives, and the much more cautious approbation by mainstream leftwing critics, reflects a recognition of the full import of the inchoate ideas that he presents here. I fully recognize how literal minded I am, but I truly did not get a good feel for how much of this Roth comprehends.

The end result then is a book that is terribly disappointing precisely because it comes so close to being great.  I don't know what Roth is working on now, and no author ever does this anymore, but I really wish he would go back and revise this book.  It is a shame to tip toe right up to the edge of greatness and then end up with this half baked product.  There is much here to admire;  the sections on the glove making process and the value of good workmanship are especially good and in their own way they offer one of the most resonant refutations of Marxism in literary history.  But these patches of surpassing brilliance lose some of their luster as they become lost in the messy whole.  I definitely recommend the book, but with serious reservations.  And, while it does not belong on the ML Top 100 either, I would have less trouble with its inclusion than with that of Portnoy; American Pastoral at least tackles some of the most important pathologies our times, even if it does not fully treat them,  and for that reason should be Roth's most enduring work.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B+)

  

Websites:

Phillip Roth Links:
-INTERVIEW: It Didn't Happen Here: Philip Roth explains that though he dislikes our current national politics, the alternatives were once much worse. (John Freeman, 12/22/04, Seattle Weekly) -REVIEW: of The Plot Against America (Tim Appelo, Seattle Weekly)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "philip roth"
    -BIO: ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA: Roth, Philip   b. March 19, 1933, Newark, N.J., U.S.
    -Philip Roth Web Page
    -Philip Roth research homepage
    -FEATURED AUTHOR: archive of reviews, essays, etc. (NY Times Book Review)
    -Philip Roth REVIEW ARCHIVE: from The New York Review of Books
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of The Dying Animal by Philip Roth
    -The Adventures of Philip Roth (Norman Podhoretz, Commentary Magazine)
    -ESSAY: DID THE 1960'S DAMAGE FICTION?  (Benjamin DeMott, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: twilight of the old goats: Mailer, Roth and Bellow refuse to go quietly (D.T. Max, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Leaving a Doll's House Claire Bloom (Katharine Whittamore, Salon)
    -ESSAY: Evolution (I a n S h o a l e s, Salon)
    -Reading Guide: American Pastoral by Philip Roth (Vintage Books, Random House)
    -LINKS: to Reviews, etc.
    -ESSAY : The Crooked Timber of Humanity :  Philip Roth's recently completed trilogy of novels about  America offers a vision of paradise lost (Jack Beatty, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: End Notes Ralph McInerny On the Two Kinds of Writers (Crisis)
    -ESSAY: Liberty and the Virtue of Prudence: A Catholic Perspective (Todd R. Flanders, Doctoral Candidate in Christian Ethics, Boston College)(The Journal of Markets and Morality:  Scholarship for a Humane Economy)
    -ESSAY:  In praise of William Jefferson Clinton  RUB YOUR EYES IN DISBELIEF, BUT DAVID HOROWITZ THINKS THE MAN FROM HOPE HAS HELPED BRING THIS NATION BACK TOGETHER AGAIN (David Horowitz, Salon)
    -ESSAY: The Adventures of Philip Roth: In his new novel, as throughout his career, the prolific, still-fresh author achieves but intermittent mastery over his own unexamined certainties (Norman Podhoretz, Commentary)
    -ESSAY: Philip Roth Blows Up: At a ripe 67, he's in the throes of an unprecedented creative explosion. Thirty years after Portnoy, is literature's legendary bad boy finally ready for the ultimate prize? (JENNIFER SENIOR, New York Magazine)
    -ESSAY: Bellow at 85, Roth at 67 (Norman Podhoretz, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: of American Pastoral: A Postwar Paradise Shattered From Within (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: The curse of the Pulitzer?  WILL THE NEW YORK TIMES PUT BOOK CRITIC MICHIKO KAKUTANI OUT TO PASTURE NOW THAT SHE'S WON THE BIG  PRIZE? (DWIGHT GARNER, Salon)
    -ESSAY: Roth's Cause : Philip Roth is trying to tell us something in his second artistic wind, a trilogy that binds the American dream to our recent national nightmares (DANIEL MENDELSOHN, New York Magazine)
    -REVIEW:  Elizabeth Hardwick: Paradise Lost, NY Review of Books
        American Pastoral by Philip Roth
    -REVIEW : of American Pastoral by Philip Roth & Underworld by Don DeLillo (Paul Gediman, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW: PHILIP ROTH'S ETERNAL THINGS (Mayer Schiller, National Review)
    -REVIEW: The Trouble With Swede Levov (MICHAEL WOOD, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: The Life of Job in Exurbia ( Ralph Lombreglia, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: THE WICKED IRONIST IS BACK - WITH A COMPASSIONATE VERSION OF THE `AMERICAN PASTORAL (Gail Caldwell, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: Blown Away A father's hold on the American Dream explodes in Philip Roth's novel of the turbulent '60s  (Joshua  Kosman, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of American Pastoral: An American Tragedy:  Philip Roth takes a second, shattering look at the age of liberation (Carol Iannone, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: Innocence Lost  Philip Roth's American fulminations (Paul Berman, Slate)
    -REVIEW: (Albert Mobilio, Salon)
    -REVIEW:  Visions of the American Beserk  (Paul Gediman, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW:  (Bob Powers, Columbus Free Press)
    -REVIEW: (Curled Up)
    -REVIEW:(The Seattle Times, Erik Lundegaard)
    -REVIEWS: Epinions.com - American Pastoral
    -REVIEW: Roth lacks energetic brilliance of past novels in 'American Pastoral'  (KEVIN STOLLER, The Daily Barometer)
    -REVIEW: of   AMERICAN PASTORAL, by Philip Roth  Paradise costs: In Philip Roth's world, the bucolic pleasures of American success can't muffle the terror fueled by loneliness (Alexander C. Kafka, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW: An American golden boy's rise and explosive fall (Larry Watson, Milwaukee  Journal Sentinel)
    -REVIEW: Life is Just a Short Period of Time in Which You Are Alive (Jay Kaplan, Culture Front)
    -REVIEW: WHEN SHE WAS BAD: PHILIP ROTH, ONCE THE WAYWARD SON, PRODUCES A POWERFUL NOVEL ABOUT A PARENT'S WORST NIGHTMARE (R.Z. SHEPPARD, TIME)
    -REVIEW: Humor, family and religion essential in `American Pastoral' (Bruce A. Nathan, Associated Press)
    -REVIEW: Miss America turns bomber. Do you still blame the parents?  (Tim Adams, Guardian/Observer, UK)
    -REVIEW: (Steve Brzezinski, Antioch Review)
    -ESSAY: Is This Picasso, or Is it the Jews? A Family Portrait at the End of History (Mark Shechner, Tikkun)
    -REVIEW : of  Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth (Doron Weber, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW: of I Married a Communist by Philip Roth (Scott Rettberg, Authors Review of Books, about.com)
    -REVIEW: of  I MARRIED A COMMUNIST. By Philip Roth Bedtime for Bolsheviks (JOHN LEONARD, The Nation)
    -REVIEW:  Alfred Kazin: Up Against the Wall, Mama!, NY Review of Books
        Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth
    -REVIEW: of The Human Stain by Philip Roth (James Hynes, Washington Post Book World)
    -REVIEW: of The Human Stain A rage against the isms: Philip Roth has turned his indignation with Clintonian America into a full-blown work of art (John Preston, UK Telegraph)
    -REVIEW :  of The Human Stain by Philip Roth (Keith Gessen, Dissent)
    -REVIEW : of  The Human Stain  by Philip Roth (Igor Webb, Partisan Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Dying Animal (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Dying Animal by Philip Roth (A. O. Scott, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Dying Animal by Philip Roth (Alan Cheuse, Chicago Tribune)
    -REVIEW : of The Dying Animal (Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World)
    -REVIEW : of The Dying Animal By Philip Roth (Gerald Shapiro, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Dying Animal by Philip Roth (Gail Caldwell, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : of Shop Talk : A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work By Philip Roth (Andrew Gorgey, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW : of 'Shop Talk' By Philip Roth (Daniel Handler, SF Chronicle)
    -Best Books for Reading Groups: 20.American Pastoral by Philip Roth
    -AWARD : 'Stain' on His Reputation Third in Philip Roth's post WW II trilogy withs PEN/Faulkner Award.

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