Nathan Zuckerman appeared first in The Ghost Writer (1979) and has since served as Roth’s spokesman in several other novels. He appears in American Pastoral primarily to recall convincingly the aura that surrounded the Swede as a high school athlete. The young Zuckerman had been obsessed by a 1940 baseball novel called The Kid from Tompkinsville, and the Kid of this novel was matched in real life by the Swede—first baseman on the baseball team, offensive end on the football team, and center on the basketball team. Between them, the Kid and the Swede represent an idyllic past in which athletes were cleancut and wholesome, and their teen admirers wore bobby socks with their saddle shoes.
The Swede dominates the story. A Jew with blond hair, hence “Swede,” he can with no trace of postmodernist irony be called a hero. His marriage to the beautiful but Irish Catholic Miss New Jersey, in which for the only time in his life he disappointed his parents, seemed to embody the American Dream: the son who continues the success story of the hardworking immigrant parents and takes his bride to live in gentrified Town and Country splendor in a stronghold of rural WASPs. Zuckerman’s adolescent hero-worship of the Swede presents him as a model of All-American decency and honesty that remains untarnished in Zuckerman’s imagination.
There is no explaining Merry’s conversion to counterculture radicalism. Roth offers the diagnosis of her psychiatrist—that Merry feels burdened by her beautiful mother and perfectionist family, an explanation that Rita Cohen shares—but the diagnosis somehow seems too easy and clichéd. Is she competing with her beautiful...
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