(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

American Pastoral has three parts. Nathan Zuckerman is the first-person narrator of part 1, “Paradise Remembered,” but he then fades out of direct sight as the presumed omniscient narrator of part 2 (“The Fall”) and part 3 (“Paradise Lost”). In 1995, attending his forty-fifth high school reunion in Newark—a day of nostalgic recollections of youthful passions and follies, and a day of dark talk about prostates and bypasses—Zuckerman is shocked to learn from his old buddy, Jerry Levov, that Jerry’s older brother, Swede Levov, a former star high school athlete whom everyone idolized, has just died of cancer. Even more distressing is the news that the Swede’s only child, Merry, blew up a rural post office/grocery when she was sixteen, killing a local doctor, and then disappeared into the antiwar underground.

With this revelation, Zuckerman begins to re-create the Swede’s experience with his daughter, imagining Merry at eleven flirting with her father and teasing him into a brief but passionate kiss that immediately frightens him. Unfortunately, the daughter who delights her parents suffers from a severe stutter and starts stuffing herself with cheeseburgers, milk shakes, and french fries, while at the same time beginning to rage obscenely against Lyndon Johnson and capitalist America. Terrible scenes rock the Levovs’ aging stone house in Old Rimrock, New Jersey, most of them precipitated by Merry’s insistence on making weekend trips to New York City—where, her father senses, she is consorting with militants. Part one ends in 1968 with the explosion that kills Dr. Fred Conlon and destroys the...

(The entire section is 669 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Nathan Zuckerman is growing up in the tight-knit, Jewish Weequahic section of Newark, New Jersey, in the 1940’s. His childhood friendship with Jerry Levov allows Zuckerman access to Jerry’s older brother, the godlike Seymour “Swede” Levov, a miraculous, mythical, high school athletic hero. Seymour has been nicknamed Swede because of his Nordic blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair complexion. Later, Zuckerman learns through gossip of Swede’s life after childhood: He graduated from college in 1948, served in the Marines, then worked in and eventually took over his father’s Newark glove factory. Over the opposition of his father, Swede has married a gentile, Irish American beauty queen, Dawn Dwyer. The couple has one daughter, Meredith (“Merry”), and is living in a beautiful historic home in rural, upper-middle-class New Jersey.

In 1985, Zuckerman, now a well-known author, meets Swede by chance at a Mets game. Ten years later, he receives a letter from Swede asking for help in writing a memorial tribute to his deceased father. Zuckerman, curious about the troubles that may have befallen the legendary Swede, meets him for lunch, where Zuckerman learns only that Swede has three wonderful sons and has apparently remarried.

Shortly thereafter, at their forty-fifth high school reunion, Zuckerman encounters Jerry, who explains that Swede has recently died of prostate cancer and details the tragic derailment of Swede’s life. Jerry divulges that Swede once owned a historic stone house in pastoral Old Rimrock, New Jersey, and appeared to be living the perfect American life. Then, one morning during the era of Vietnam War protests, his obese, stuttering, adolescent daughter Merry bombed the village post office and killed a beloved doctor picking up mail. According to Jerry, Swede, who had never before questioned his perfect American dream world, suddenly found his...

(The entire section is 772 words.)