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American Pastoral: American Trilogy (1) (Vintage International) Paperback – February 3, 1998
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"One of Roth's most powerful novels ever...moving, generous and ambitious...a fiercely affecting work of art." —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"Dazzling...a wrenching, compassionate, intelligent novel...gorgeous." —Boston Globe
"At once expansive and painstakingly detailed.... The pages of American Pastoral crackle with the electricity and zest of a first-rate mind at work." —San Francisco Chronicle
From the Inside Flap
As the American century draws to an uneasy close, Philip Roth gives us a novel of unqualified greatness that is an elegy for all our century's promises of prosperity, civic order, and domestic bliss. Roth's protagonist is Swede Levov, a legendary athlete at his Newark high school, who grows up in the booming postwar years to marry a former Miss New Jersey, inherit his father's glove factory, and move into a stone house in the idyllic hamlet of Old Rimrock. And then one day in 1968, Swede's beautiful American luck deserts him.
For Swede's adored daughter, Merry, has grown from a loving, quick-witted girl into a sullen, fanatical teenager--a teenager capable of an outlandishly savage act of political terrorism. And overnight Swede is wrenched out of the longer-for American pastoral and into the indigenous American berserk. Compulsively readable, propelled by sorrow, rage, and a deep compassion for its characters, this is Roth's masterpiece.
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In my first read, the book seemed static; abrupt in changing its point of view. As opera, it would have plenty of passion but remain earthbound nevertheless. Its narrative is flimsy, doing little more than connecting the dots that map out the story.
The nut of this story is a single horrible act of 1960s domestic terrorism and its aftermath that becomes the fulcrum around which everything spins. The narrative, circles but ends up going nowhere. The “Swede,” who is the main voice, keeps churning the story by referring again and again to the horrible event and the consequences. The story is recounted, told and retold.
To me the book becomes the Swede’s internal, desperate rant, a “cri de Coeur,” of a man of privilege, a Jew, a blond golden boy, ultimately brought to ground by the turbulent, explosive 1960s and the events that swept society and the Swede along with it – into the “fury, violence and desperation of the counterpastoral, into the indigenous American berserk.”
When I finished the book, I brooded and then moved on. Then in an act of compulsion, I re-read it. My read-through this time was an attempt to channel the Swede, to burrow into his head and feel what he’s feeling. And the thing of it is, when I did that, the book became disquieting, disturbing – almost haunting – in the fierceness and anguish of its emotion. It’s simply incredible how Roth manages to get your brain roiling with empathy. The novel is burdened with the Swede’s unbridled internal feeling of rage, which is portrayed in a way and to an extent that my reassessment makes “American Pastoral” among the most wrenching books I’ve read.
Roth calls upon Nathan Zuckerman to narrate the first third of the book. It’s in this section we learn most about Seymour Levov’s – The Swede’s – history. Then poof, Zuckerman disappears, inexplicably and the world in the 1960s is portrayed through the lens of the Swede’s unhinged sensibilities.
Roth gives us a character study of a decent man who comes of age in postwar America and falls to the grip of his times. This is foremost a story of America –its immigrants, its industry and its promise of a good, orderly life. Isn’t it ironic that the Swede’s wife was a runner-up for the Miss America crown.
The Swede’s prosperity derives from a successful glove business started by his father. The business of making and marketing fashion gloves becomes a fascinating case study of what it takes to succeed, what it’s like to be stalked by the threat of failure, what it’s like to feel powerless to stem defeat.
Ultimately “American Pastoral” earns lasting distinction because it transcends. More than the story of an individual crushed by the forces of history, the novel rises to become a sweeping portrait of America at its most fractious. If Roth is ever presented with the Nobel Prize he deserves, he will have entered the pantheon because of writing this compelling.
In a word: Transcendent
To say that it's dense with a million points and discussions is putting it mildly. Making strong connections to the American Dream, Roth challenges our high ideals by calling into question the discordancy between people's moral smugness and the secret immorality that is many's reality. To be honest, I found his ideas slightly refreshing, as it does seem that there is hypocrisy in being offended by a million little things in society and yet quietly falling apart behind the scenes and not owning it. At some point, it seems that we need to find a way to have the courage of our convictions to own our weaknesses, to be humble enough to use life's lessons as a learning curve and not an end point of judgment.
This story of Swede Levov and his family echoes with many of the elements of the quintessential American Dream, until we peel back the cover just a bit. What seems to be a charmed, self-made story of American success turns sour when Swede's troubled daughter becomes involved with anarchist activities surrounding protests over the Vietnam War. Woven with complex themes of marriage, child rearing, politics, sexuality, and social class, this novel packs a big punch--one that often lands squarely between your eyes.
Although a pretty hard novel to work through, with all of its deeper discussions on life and culture, it was well worth picking up. Roth has a certain cynicism that I'm not sure I'm ready to wander back to in the near future, but after picking up the pieces of all that I read here, I can see myself reading another novel by Roth down the road.