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 life turned completely upside down. It is Jerry’s theory that Swede’s never-ending desire always to do the right thing has killed him.
Intrigued, Zuckerman begins to contemplate the stoic Swede and tries to understand how this once-mythical figure fell from grace. Realizing he has simplified and idealized Swede’s life, Zuckerman begins to retell Swede’s story, reinventing and reimagining his all-American life, picking up the story after Merry’s bombing of the post office.
In Zuckerman’s posthumous narration, Merry has disappeared, and the distraught Levovs search fruitlessly for her. Suddenly, Rita Cohen, a purported emissary from Merry, appears at the glove factory to taunt Swede and swindle money. Five years pass, and during this time Swede, who has been permanently traumatized, struggles to determine what wounded Merry, derailing her development. He considers his own inappropriate kiss on the mouth of the stammering child, her psychiatrist’s theories, her mother’s anxiety, her struggles for fluency, her flirtation with Dawn’s Catholicism, her adolescent self, her attitude toward bourgeois values, and her anger at the Vietnam War and the “system.” Swede feels responsible for Merry’s behavior and ruminates on his repeated conversations and interventions with the militant adolescent. Meanwhile, Dawn has a psychiatric breakdown and finally recovers after an expensive face-lift.
Swede receives a note from Rita stating that Merry is now living in the most derelict section of Newark. Father and daughter meet on a blighted street corner. Merry has converted to Jainism, an ancient Indian religion that prescribes a nonviolent life. She is emaciated, decrepit, and filthy, but astoundingly has lost her stutter. She leads him to the hovel she inhabits, where she admits to bombing the post office, fleeing to her speech therapist’s house, blowing up three more people, living in communes, and being raped. Merry says she has now denounced selfhood and begs her father to go. Swede...
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becomes distraught, but, unable to help his daughter, he returns to Old Rimrock, his idyllic life shattered.
When Swede returns home after meeting Merry, he begins preparing for a large dinner party planned earlier. It is the summer of the 1973 Watergate hearings, and Swede’s father, Lou, is watching television. In a manner reminiscent of Merry, Lou spits out vitriolic abuse against President Nixon. During the chaotic dinner party, Swede’s innocence is further shattered when he discovers that his wife is having an affair with their neighbor, Bill Orcutt. He also discovers to his horror that Merry’s speech therapist, Sheila Salzman, a woman with whom he had a brief fling in the aftermath of the bombing, had secretly harbored Merry after the bombing, when it still might have been possible to stop her before others were killed. The novel closes with the inebriated Jessie Orcutt physically attacking Lou Levov, who is trying to supervise her erratic behavior.