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on May 20, 2002
One of the knocks on this book, even from reviewers who have liked it, is that it trivializes the rebellious spirit of the 1960s through the screeching lunacy of Merry Levov. There were countless examples of logical, righteous, nonviolent protest, they argue, and by showing only the thoughtless Merry and her equally deranged companion, Rita Cohen, along with the destruction of the Newark race riots (carried out by blacks who, Swede Levov seems to think, are just being ungrateful), Philip Roth comes off as someone who missed the decade altogether, perhaps in seclusion doing research for Portnoy's Complaint.

I think, however, that Roth's one-maybe-two-dimensional portrayal of Merry and the other revolutionary forces of the '60s was precisely the point. This novel was not so much about the turbulent '60s as it was about the disintegration of the '50s. The story is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman and told through the (imagined) eyes of Swede Levov, both of whom graduated high school before 1950. Roth is not only concerned with the collapse of the Swede's American dream, but also with his assimilation into American society, his pursuit and eventual attainment of the American dream -- all typical characterstics of the '50s. The Swede had no concept of the attributes which we typically ascribe to the '60s. He was too busy worrying about how to make the perfect lady's dress glove. The reason Roth did so much research and wrote in such painstaking detail about the glove industry was to tell the reader precisely what Lou and Swede Levov's lives revolved around. Since the Swede is the only character whom we see others through, of course he isn't going to question himself for being concerned with such things as D rings and piece rates. It's up to the readers to draw the inference that maybe, just maybe, the Swede is out of touch and too concerned with materialism and achieving the perfect life. This is not necessarily a terrible thing by itself.

What Roth aims to do is not to paint a 100 percent historically accurate portrait of the '60s, but instead to illustrate what a horror the '60s looked like to someone who was not a participant in the counterculture movement -- to someone who had something to lose. The best way to do that was to take the worst of that counterculture movement -- self-absorbed adolescents who raged against their successful upbringing in order to conform to the growing popularity of the rebellion -- and spill it onto the page, to show how berserk this decade was to someone who was in no way trained for it. To show how justified, cool-headed and rational some parts of the '60s revolution were would have detracted from an integral theme of the book, as imagined by the Swede: He learned "the worst lesson that life can teach -- that it makes no sense."

Also, keep in mind that Zuckerman is the book's narrator, and he is imagining nearly all of the story. He is trying, somehow, to make sense of the Swede's tragedy. It's possible that Merry really had a few more redeeming characteristics than is written, and than Jerry Levov says she did. The best way to make sense of tragedy sometimes is to say the whole world is crazy, and maybe that's what Zuckerman did, turning Merry into a raving lunatic in order to show that there was nothing the Swede could do to save her or himself. What Roth has done, with Zuckerman's help, is something along the lines Tim O'Brien talked about in his novel The Things They Carried -- to create a story that is emotionally true, if not entirely factually true.

At its core, this novel is an allegory, with the Swede representing the all-too-perfect 1950s and Merry the tumultuous, unexplainable '60s. In order to get across the full effect of this gulf, Roth had to show the '60s at their worst.

EDIT: I hadn't really looked at this review in a long time, then noticed a comment from a year and a half ago that (rightly) called me out for racist phrasing that made it sound like I was saying the black population of Newark was being ungrateful. I've edited it to reflect that I thought that Swede is the one who was thinking this, not me. It was very poor phrasing, but that phrasing was due to me not being nearly racially aware enough to realize it was poor phrasing, so I'm not going to blame a glitch in the writing. It came from me, and I'm sorry.
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on June 26, 2000
"American Pastoral" is indeed a special book. It displays none of the often unsettling preoccupation with sex that some of Roth's other books do. This novel examines the rise and fall of a man with a life that all his acquaintances thought was blessed--a start athlete and war hero, who goes on successfully to run his father's glove factory. A non-religious Jew, he marries a pretty Catholic girl (the former Miss New Jersey!), lives in a nice house, and has a pretty daughter, Merry--slips comfortably, in other words, into mainstream America.
Merry grows up, though, to be a sociopath, a fanatic, who as part of the general 60's counterculture movement, commits a terrible act of violence, and has to go into hiding...for the rest of her life. Her act destroys the foundations of Swede's world. We watch him and those close to him slowly disintegrate, emotionally and spiritually. Their decline is not a decline in material fortunes, but it is slow and gruelling nevertheless.
Roth writes like an angel. Much of this book is expository, written in precise, evocative, sometimes Faulkneresque, sometimes academic prose. The characters are vivid, immediate, and believable. This is also an idea book, though, and often the ideas are left abstract...which isn't bad. Roth doesn't try to force answers where perhaps none exist.
This book is truly a treat.
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on December 6, 2003
I started this book with very high hopes - I'd only read one other Roth, the short and highly sarcastic "The Breast," and I had heard that in recent years he'd turned more sober and objective. To me this meant Roth was coming of age, a voice expressing a fuller range of our hopes, fears, loves and angers.
Much of "American Pastoral" satisfied this desire. Book one (of three) is a 100-or-so page, somewhat tedious prologue, where Roth's alter ego Nathan Zuckerman intruduces the main character and creates a setting to present his secret story. With book two, it settles into a wonderful exploration of inner and outer lives. This central section, and most of book three, is beautifully written and reads effortlessly, making the first part feel worthwhile. By combining real world places (hint - it helps a lot to know New Jersey) and politics, with fictional characters whose lives embody the times and themes, Roth puts us directly into the drama of the story.
This sounds like a cliché; but through lengthy description, we learn by stages about the conflicts inside the main character. Seymour "Swede" Levov, a handsome, Jewish industrialist and high school athletic hero who marries Dawn Dwyer, Miss New Jersey of 1949, and whose vigor and generosity of spirit bring him success in business and to a life in the affluent (and WASPish) Jersey countryside, suffers a tragic fall when his radical daughter Merry goes berserk with one murderous bombing, and then others. As she begins a life on the run, he and Dawn endure recrimination and only-partial recovery. We watch Swede in a journey through his past and his present, an apparently peaceful man who learns to accommodate the real world by devising his own reality. This seems the central theme, just how we are to construct a world that we want to live in. His traditional, Jewish father, and his angry brother, are respectively full of shame and hatred for the daughter, but Swede, who still wants to know what went wrong, is frozen - first in denial, later in incomprehension.
In the reading, we come to identify the people and the many facets of their predicament. Yet in the end, the plot is dropped, and that's where it failed as a narrative. American Pastoral ends symbolically and inconclusively. We never learned Merry's ultimate fate, what happened to Swede's marriage, or even the real identity of Rita Cohen, the vicious young woman who may or may not have been Merry's accomplice. I know it's a novel of ideas, but a book that goes to such trouble to develop characters and establish plot, should keep its promise and resolve the plot. It made me wonder Why Roth went on at such length, in so many sections. Why tell us the whole background to Swede and his family, and their latest heartbreaks, and then not finish the story? If the point was simply to illustrate clashing symbols and themes, it could have been done much more economically.
American Pastoral won the Pulitzer Prize, I think largely on the strength of its exposition. Much of it reads like an essay we'd want to write ourselves, from our very heart and soul, exploring our own tensions, flowing and unfolding with nervous honesty. I wish those Pulitzer people cared more about story-telling, since this is how the greatest writers, Dickens, Melville, Twain, Nabokov, and others, truly touch our lives.
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on April 28, 1997
"American Pastoral" is a remarkable novel which canbe read and enjoyed on a variety of "levels."^M
Stylistically, Philip Roth's prose glides effortlessly between passages of sheer lyricism and Hemmingway-like reality. The characters of Swede Levov, his wife, Dawn, and their daughter Merry, --as well as other characters in the novel---are sharply etched and observed. The dialogue each of the characters speak is right on target and delineates their character without the author imposing his own "voice" upon the words they speak.^M
However, Roth's novel achieves the level of "art" in terms of social commentary and his view that America has somehow lost its soul and sense of direction. A decent, hardworking family--a family that has done its absolute best to raise their daughter to become the kind of person who reflects the best values our country represents---is totally destroyed when their daughter, Merry, becomes a terrorist and eventually lapses into madness. Roth's vision of the world is an extremely depressing if not a totally pessimistic one. Nothing that happens by way of historical or social events seems to make any sense. All is simply "chaos." What happens, simply "happens" and there is nothing one can do to stop the descent into a hell where nothing makes sense---where events totally overwhelm decent parents and their family's attempts to control them. ALL parents and families are not, of course, as Philip Roth describes them. But the trend away from traditional "values" and values which, apart from religion per se or political "correctness" have heretofore given our nation a sense of purpose and unity, are swiftly disappearing--as any, daily reading of contemporary headlines indicate.^M
There are a few minor "flaws" in Roth's novel. The scene in which Merry's friend, Rita Cohen, tries to seduce Swede Levov after visiting his factory, is a bit overdone and the crassness of the sexual encounter and the language spoken by Rita is out of keeping with the rest of the dialogue spoken by the character in the novel. One feels that the author has momentarily "lost control" of the scene and situation and sunk to a level that is out of proportion to the action which is taking place. ^M
The ending of the novel is a bit anti-climactic and does not leave the reader with a satisfying sense of plot resolution and fulfillment. But these are minor flaws indeed!^M ^M
"American Pastoral" is a deeply moving, often humorous, but most of all extremely disturbing novel. The author's descriptions of buildings, neighborhoods, and the effects which the riots of the sixties had on Newark and elsewhere throughout the country are graphically described. He captures the sights, sounds, and meanings of social upheaval and the people involved in the political events that take place as only a journalist and literary artist can.^M ^M
One may question the blackness of Roth's vision of an American gone astray---but one cannot question the humanity of his doomed family or the author's sense of compassion for the characters he has created and described. Never preachy or dogmatic, Philip Roth simply lets his characters speak as their destructive, nihilistic natures dictate.^M
The result is a novel that is, by turns, both immensely sad, often humorous, ferociously angry, but always intelligently written and conceived. It deserves to be widely read.
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on January 23, 2004
My initial reaction to AMERICAN PASTORAL was that it was a search to understand a life characterized by a shell of outward perfection hiding unimaginable family horror, one which mirrored America�s own wrenching progress from liking Ike to dissing Dick. I loved the rhythm of the probing, uncertain prose, but like a lot of readers (apparently), felt it rambled at times. Then, on the advice of a friend who had read the book a second time, I went back to the section on Zuckerman�s high school reunion, the conversation with Jerry Levov about his brother the Swede and, in particular, Zuckerman's own thoughts about sharing the book he had written about the Swede with Jerry before submitting it for publication (chronologically, the end of the book). Doing that completely threw my original opinion for one big loop, as I realized the Swede's story was in fact the product of Zuckerman's imagination and not the imparted truth of an omniscient narrator, as I had somehow managed to lull myself into believing. Instead, AMERICAN PASTORAL became the story of a literally gutted writer (he's had his prostate�and many might say, for Zuckerman, his Muse--removed) paying homage to his craft. Except for the general fact that his daughter Merry bombed a local post office, the Swede's whole story in Book 2 is a fabrication, ultimately saying more about the writer�s power to move, shock and tell a damn good story than it does about Seymour Levov and America in the Sixties. In that regard, the book�s two most powerful conceits are the passionate kiss during Merry's 11th summer and the Swede�s encounters with Rita Cohen. Both are charged with sexual grotesquery, and both are so at odds with anything we actually do know about the Swede that you have to wonder if they are only the product of Zuckerman's musings. But why would Zuckerman fabricate such shocking scenes about one of the nicest guys you�ll ever find in modern literature? That's what I could not figure out. And I concluded it�s because they're not for figuring out, just as great stories and the art of great storytelling are not for figuring out, but for stirring emotion and provoking thought. And, in the case of AMERICAN PASTORAL, not on such relative ephemera as the dysfunction of Sixties America, but on timeless subjects of fate, shifting fortune, family and loss that are more the province of Greek or Shakespearean or Biblical tragedy. As I was reading AP, Merry's quick unravelling unnerved me no end, both because of the idea that it could happen to any family, and because I have my own daughter, making even the slightest analogies to Merry all the scarier. But as I finished the book, and especially after I�d re-read the reunion episode, the character I kept thinking about was Lou, who Zuckerman portrays as a kind of loveable, old-world, avuncular character when he is no doubt (as Zuckerman's imagined conversation with Jerry about Lou�s portrayal suggests) a ... of an employer, husband and father. The other character that forced me to re-think the book was Rita Cohen, one of the most gut-churning characters I've ever come across. She is so pernicious, so unremittingly cruel, that she can only be digested as an abstraction: part Macbeth witch, part Greek chorus and part Hamlet's ghost, always there to stir up the Swede's pot and propel his fate. (I also wonder if she isn�t a wry jab by Roth at those who call him a misogynist, as if he�s saying, You think my female characters are bad role models? Try this one on for size.) Viewing the story as an abstraction also made me appreciate Roth's style of poking around the edges of issues, trying to find the heart of many weighty matters. What at first seemed �rambling� instead became lyrical, and, in the end, made every word feel vital.
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on July 8, 2001
The central dillemma of "American Pastoral" is that the "ability to penetrate the interior of people" is beyond most people. Apparently this is true of people and books as well. Since starting this wonderful, passionate, infuriating novel, I have often returned to the same page, the same paragraph rereading what serves as the thematic statement of the novel.
"You fight your superficiality, your shallownes, so as to try and come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogacnce...take them on with an open mind, as equals man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong."
There it is, simple and straight forward. Phillip Roth is a very giving novelist. He states his point. Not just once, but again and again he echos this sentiment. And still people never fail to get this book wrong.
The superficiality is to take this book as the tale of the Swede's tragic undoing. Or to take it as a recounting of Merry's misguided rebellion. Or even of Nathan Zuckerman's obsessions. This is a book about how the self is infinitely unknowable. How one can never truly understand oneself, much less others. What makes this novel so brilliant, in my humble opinion, is not simply the very true message the book carries. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could come off as a platitude, a cliche, so overstated as to become meaningless. Instead, Roth gives you a collection of dazzilingly complicated characters, beyond simple definition, only knowable through the words of themselves or others, but unknowable all the time.
One reader complained of being frustrated with not knowing whether this was truly the story of the Swede, or a fiction of Zuckerman's mind. And to that I say, that is the point. We can't know the Swede except through the fiction we create in our own mind, our attempt at understanding that is always a little fiction, a little wrong.
One person accused Roth of overwriting. no doubt, they had in mind the long passages detailing the making of gloves in dazzling overspun details. To that I say, this is absoluetley necessary to the structure of the novel. That these trivialities occupy so much of our time and our lives. That superficiality and depth know no difference in the swamp of our mind or our estimation of people. Swede, the man judged to be just a father and a business man, a normal people, a collection of surface details. How could a responsible writer leave all of that out?
This book, engaging and complex, is what all great literature should be, a life in and of itself. A character at once identifiable by it's traits, but unknowable except for what we believe in our own minds it to be.
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on November 10, 2000
Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for this riveting, quietly horrifying novel that shatters the idyllic illusion of an America that once might have been, but will be no more. American Pastoral is a brilliant commentary on our inability to effectively see beneath the surface of apparent well-being and contentment in others. The first of the "Zuckerman trilogy," (which ends with The Human Stain), American Pastoral recalls and builds on Roth's most accomplished and self-referential fiction of the past.
As the novel opens, Skip Zuckerman, the childless, unattached, first-person narrator of the trilogy has a chance meeting with a boyhood hero at a baseball game. This hero is Swede Levov, an older man who is still, impossibly blonde, blue-eyed and youthful; a legend within his predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Swede is the very embodiment of "America" and all that "being American" stands for. He is, Skip is sure, incapable of living anything but the perfect, and perfectly rewarding, life.
Swede's brother, Jerry, was Skip's best friend, so when Swede asks for a meeting with Skip, Skip is a little puzzled but not all that surprised. Swede, however, doesn't ask anything specific of Skip, but talks of his sons and his memories of Newark before and during World War II. This meeting, though, is pivotal to the novel's central question and its meaning soon becomes crystal clear.
As the novel progresses, Skip attends his high school reunion and, while making note of the various deficiencies shared by the sixtyish men and women in attendance, becomes convinced that no human being ever really knows or understands another. He is depressed by all the conversation about cancer, divorce and the various problems associated with growing older. It is Jerry, though, Swede's brother, who tells Skip the one thing that will disillusion more than any other.
Roth's brilliance as well as his masterful and well-crafted prose draw us into American Pastoral and allow us to participate in the mundane life experiences of its characters as if those experiences were our very own. We live through school reunions, failed marriages, duplicity and waste as Skip proceeds to a more detailed examination of the life of Swede Levov.
Swede's life, Skip finds out, was nothing like he had imagined it would be. Obsessed, Skip begins a novel that focuses on the life of Swede Levov. Although Skip is making up a lot of his book as he goes along, the story is nonetheless true and it is a story that will resonate painfully with anyone who has ever felt alone, in control, out of control, or who has thought that he or she knew all about someone they have cared about deeply. As the facts about Swede Levov's life slowly unfold, as his secrets are unearthed, the glossy veneer of satisfaction, contentment and perfection begins to slip away from his life. As the man behind the persona is fully revealed, we come to realize, with Skip Zuckerman, that in anyone's life, one torment can, and often does, lead to more and more agony until its inevitability is appalling.
American Pastoral is more of an impassioned dialogue with its readers than a convincing and linear story. This is not a warm and comforting book that will leave a glow in your heart after the last page. In fact, its most convincing and most powerfully-written passages are those in which Swede and Skip discuss and reflect upon human nature's congenital loneliness.
American Pastoral is a painful book; it is a book that explores a dark and lonely side of human nature. But it is masterfully written, in prose that is spare and elegant and, above all, authentic. At its heart, American Pastoral is a gorgeous elegy for the American Dream; a funeral ode to an innocence that has long since passed away.
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on January 18, 2004
With American Pastoral, Philip Roth came pretty damn close to writing America after WW2. While I was reading Underworld, I thought Delillo had pulled it off, but now I know better. I'll admit, at the start I wasn't hooked in, but by about page 11 I became aware that I was reading greatness. You know that tingly feeling you get when you realise that the book you are about to read is special? That's what I had.
The story is fairly straight forward, but it is told in an interesting way. It seems that the narrator (Zuckerman) had an infatuation with the school sports hero who had everything: girls, success, looks, all that jazz. Later on in life when Zuckerman is a successful author he meets up with The Swede, who wrote him a letter asking to help write a biography of his father. Zuckerman is intrigued by this, mostly because of the power his high school years had over him, so he accepts. But the Swede doesn't tell him anything, then, at a reunion a few months later, he learns that the Swede died of cancer.
So, Zuckerman decided to recreate the Swede's life, find out where it went wrong and what happened. He has a few clues from the Swede's brother and from his own memories, but most of it is imagined. It is a good way for Zuckerman to meander on about how life affects you and how you affect it, what happens to people behind closed doors that we just don't know about and, touchingly, how a father can love his daughter so much when she disappoints him at every turn - and tragically at that.
The ending wasn't particularly punchy, but it finished well with a nice tie-up of the few threads that needed to be tied up at all. Like life, not everything ends on the point of a period, and American Pastoral reflects this. I feel that a younger man couldn't have written this book, that it really did need the weight of years and experience to create, and I feel better for having read it.
Highly recommended.
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on December 27, 2002
This is such a great book, and yet it is so hard to read. From a purely technical standpoint it is brilliantly executed -- as are all of Roth's books -- setting up conflict after conflict, crisis afer crisis, with a complete (and refreshing) lack of real resolution. Nothing trite here. But even the most technical and literate of readers will invariably get caught up in the complex, heartbreaking pathos of this book, exploring as it does the undoing of a family that, on its surface, would seem to define the truest essence of what it means to be American. The turbulence of late 1960s America serves as both a thematic foundation and a plot accelerant, and I have to say that I feel Roth deftly captured the spirit of the times: the anger, the naivete, the mindless adherence to shallow ideals (on all sides) and the radical and painful transformation of our mercurial culture. The examination of a life being gradually and irreversibly destroyed (that of the main character, Seymour Levov), and those around him who help to destroy it (principally his daughter, Merry, but also his wife, his "friends," and some mysterious secondary characters), is portrayed so expertly that I periodically had to put the book down because it was almost too much to bear. Nevertheless, this book is truly an epic piece of contemporary American literature, and absolutely deserving of the Pulitzer.
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on September 18, 2000
Roth's general plotline is extremely thought-provoking and interesting - the Swede and his antagonistic, fanatical daughter; his ruminations on what along the way has caused her to be the way she is. When the above was part of the story, I was compelled to read. However, the other 3/4 of the book strike me as self-indulgent passages Roth included simply to show just how well he thinks he writes, and how all-inclusive his research and knowledge can be. These passages often trudge along slowly and take the reader away from the main plot at hand. This could have been a 5-star, very disturbing, fascinating study, which at times it is - but altogether, it walks the line between the aforementioned to being a pompous bore.
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