Friday, November 30, 2012

American Pastoral

by Philip Roth

Blue-eyed, blond student athlete Swede Levov, son of a Jewish glove maker in Newark, has built his life around the virtues of hard work and assimilation.  Without expressly repudiating his father’s culture (he inherits and excels at the elder Levov’s trade), he marries a Catholic former Miss New Jersey who raises cows, moves to a grand home in the countryside, and lives in a manner that upsets the natural order of things as little as possible; he placates Catholic and Jewish fears alike; he gives off-putting people the benefit of the doubt; he relies on the quiet strength acquired by not using one’s physical strength.  He and his wife Dawn have a stuttering daughter, Merry, who is doted upon and who at adolescence becomes enraged at America’s involvement in Vietnam and falls into the grossest ignorant, maniacal anti-Capitalist vitriol at every turn.  She throws the Swede’s life into bitter, recriminating chaos when she bombs a post office in town and becomes a fugitive; he spends most of the book wondering how such a thing could have happened, poring over minor incidents in Merry’s childhood and how much he is to blame.  His wife takes refuge in a sanitarium; he is tortured, psychically, by a vicious young woman who may or may not be an ally of Merry’s; he wonders about the health of his marriage and what his father thinks.

Over 423 pages, this overly verbose novel alternates between flashes of genius – musings on how we can ever really know another human, or what the consequences may be of the actions we take, to which we ascribe no particular importance but which may redound heavily on others’ lives and psyches – and numbing, indulgent repetition – the Swede scours the shards of his life, over and over, asking the same unanswerable questions, to no effect.  The book begins with a first-person narrator who knew the Swede as a child, and who attends his forty-fifth high school reunion, meets up with some old crushes, and fades utterly from the narrative shortly afterwards; his existence, I suppose, was merely so Roth could tackle the subject of going home again, and to exorcise some thoughts on his Boomer cohorts.  Who knows.  There is some very high drama in a dinner party at the end of the book, in which emotions run high – the guilt, the resentments of spouses and neighbors, the accusations and confessions of adultery, jealously, class and culture resentment, panic, and secrets all roil in the Swede as he considers some new information about his daughter – and it would have made a very powerful novella, but this tome is just too much.  It’s exhausting, not galvanizing.

three stars

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