With American Pastoral, his 23rd book, Philip Roth has climbed close to the summit of the Great American Novel. The 63-year-old writer’s latest work is an audacious assault on the twin peaks of love and death, an elegiac meditation on the state of the union as the millennium dawns. As told by Nathan Zuckerman, the obsessively self-reflective writer—and Roth persona— who has appeared in several previous novels, American Pastoral is the tragic story of the rise and fall of Seymour Levov, the embodiment of all that’s good about America brought down by all that’s bad. It is a novel about division: between myth and history, the inner and outer life, the ideal of the American Dream and the reality of what Zuckerman calls the “American berserk.”
Nothing embodies this tragic division as powerfully as Levov, the fair-complexioned Jew known reverentially in his home town of Newark, N.J., as “the Swede”—a legendary high-school athlete, decorated marine, successful businessman, devoted husband and father, all-American citizen. In 1985, some 36 years after Zuckerman last saw Levov, he
Philip Roth’s latest is a stunning tale of broken dreams
bumps into the “still terrifically handsome” Swede at a New York Mets baseball game. A decade after that chance encounter, Zuckerman receives a letter from Levov inviting him to dinner at a Manhattan restaurant. The reason? To solicit his help in writing a tribute to the Swede’s irascible father, recently deceased at 96.
For Zuckerman, the meeting is a letdown. The former Golden Boy from Newark now appears nothing more than “a nice, simple, stoical guy” at best, and at worst “a human platitude.” His manner seems so sincere, so guileless and innocent, that Zuckerman wonders if early stardom hasn’t “mummified the Swede as a boy forever." Where was the man’s inner life, Zuckerman asks? The complexity? The suffering?
Zuckerman soon discovers that he was never more wrong about someone in his life. At a high-school reunion he runs into the Swede’s kid brother, Jerry, a cardiac surgeon from Florida, who tells him the Swede is dead. And the real killer, Jerry insists, was not prostate cancer but the Swede’s own beloved and estranged daughter. “My brother thought he could take his family out of real time,” he tells Zuckerman, “and she put him back in.” She being a bright, stammering, overweight political terrorist who in
1968 blew up the local post office, and with it the Swede’s life and everything he stood for. Goodbye American pastoral. Hello American tragedy.
The decent and virtuous Swede, happily married to Miss New Jersey, 1949, and living an ordered life in a lovingly restored 170-year-old farm house in Old Rimrock, far from the burnt-out urban chaos of Newark, had been no match for the violent political extremism of his daughter. Nor was he able to counter her vision of America, which challenged and ultimately destroyed his own. For the narrator, the Swede had represented the postwar American optimism of the 1940s and ’50s. But his daughter, the aptly misnamed Merry, is from a less forgiving generation—one that in the 1960s and ’70s considered no act too extreme to protest the war in Vietnam.
In American Pastoral Zuckerman, the writer, dreams what he calls “a realistic chronicle” whose purpose is to get right another man’s life—not the life of “a god or demigod,” he cautions, but the life of “another assailable man.” And as the novel traces the pathetic trajectory of Merry’s life from rebellious teenage daughter to political terrorist and, later, religious fanatic, the reader witnesses with even greater pathos the Swede’s long fall from grace. For while his outer life may have appeared unchanged to a boyhood hero-worshipper, after Merry became a fugitive from justice he wallowed in the depths of what Zuckerman calls “a gruesome inner life,” one whose fellow travellers are “tyrannical obsessions ... horrible imaginings .. . unanswerable questions.”
And yet, the Swede soldiered doggedly on, doing everything in his power to save Merry from herself. Condemned to suffer, he refused to complain. Condemned to fail, he refused to give up. And it was precisely as a suffering, “assailable man” banished from the American pastoral into the wilderness of history that the Swede became truly heroic, having learned “the worst lesson that life can teach—that it makes no sense.”
American Pastoral is a cautionary tale about the soul of a nation divided by race, by generations, by values, by vision—a story about failed reunions. Merry is a daughter of denial, a child of the unpredictable disorder that her father and her country refuse to allow into their conscious lives. If the Swede is guilty of anything, it’s presuming to love the America his daughter hates while trying to fortify himself against its chaos. Zuckerman reminds us that once that fortification has been breached, it can never be closed again. Any wonder, then, that he asks at the end of the story, as if he were the chorus in a Greek tragedy, “What on earth is less reprehensible than the lives of the Levovs?”
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