American Pastoral (1997)

By Philip Roth

Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth’s alter-ego for nearly four decades now, is settling uncomfortably into old age. Now a literary recluse like E.I. Lonoff, the mentor of his youth in The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman has survived prostate cancer (though, given his notorious past, not without ironic complications), and, as the novel begins, has returned once more to his school days in Newark, New Jersey. The device here is a class reunion, a gathering of former athletes, beauties, and outsiders, transformed by time into uncanny snapshots of their own immigrant grandparents. Zuckerman is most surprised to find Jerry Levov there. Now a ruthless, four-times-married Miami surgeon, Jerry had once been important to Nathan only because of the access their friendship afforded him into the private world of Jerry’s older brother, Seymour “Swede” Levov, the finest athlete to ever walk the halls of Weequahic High and Nathan’s lifelong hero. From their brief conversation, Nathan learns that the Swede’s life was forever altered in 1968, when his teenage daughter, Merry, blew up the local post office, along with a local doctor, in protest of the Vietnam War. The rest of the story is left for Zuckerman’s telling.

The form of American Pastoral is established in two early passages. After his encounter with Jerry, Zuckerman becomes obsessed with the Swede, locking himself away to restore life to his fallen idol. Typical of Roth, the moment is captured in mirror images: “Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day?” After pouring once more over the few “facts” at his disposal, Zuckerman/Roth retreats to fiction, adding, “anything more I wanted to know, I’d have to make up.” And he does just that. One-fifth of the way through the novel, Zuckerman disappears completely, surrendering his own voice to the Swede’s sorrowful lament.

American Pastoral also finds its structural precedent in The Kid from Tomkinsville, a children’s book the young Nathan had once discovered on the Swede’s bookshelf. It tells the story of a baseball phenomenon whose life is marked equally by stunning success and heart-breaking tragedy. “I was ten and I had never read anything like it,” Nathan says. “The cruelty of life. The injustice of it.” It’s perhaps too literary—too easy—of a device for Roth, but the 400+ page story of the Swede’s fall follows a similar trajectory, as does, Roth implies, the story of America’s recent history. For the Swede is Roth’s finest personification of the post-war American Dream and all the complicated realities that frustrate it. “Three generations. All of them growing. The working. The saving. The success. Three generations in raptures over America. Three generations of becoming one with a people. And now with the fourth it had all come to nothing. The total vandalization of their world.” The Swede’s longed-for American pastoral becomes its grotesque counterpart, “the indigenous American berserk.”

What most fascinates me about this novel—along, of course, with Roth’s beautiful prose—is its inability, ultimately, to make any sense of the Swede’s tragedy. Those readers who turn to the final page, hoping to find resolution, answers, grace, will find, once again, only the question that haunts every preceding chapter: “And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” The Swede, though occasionally chastised for lacking requisite self-awareness, is a good man: hard-working, honorable, a loving father and husband, a good-hearted liberal opposed to Vietnam and actively involved in the fight for civil rights. And yet he is unable to escape the violence, the destruction of his family, the rape of his daughter—that rape that haunts him more than the deaths or the explosions or the decay. He is unable to escape the mysterious, inarticulate pain that has become his life. After a reunion with Merry, the Swede returns home to a dinner party, broken by the sight of his frail, filthy daughter, but unable to speak about it. “He was supposed to do this forever,” Roth writes. “However much he might crave to get out, he was to remain stopped dead in the moment in that box. Otherwise the world would explode.”