“The pure products of America/ go crazy,” wrote William Carlos Williams, the bard of Paterson, New Jersey.
In American Pastoral, his twenty-second book, Philip Roth, the scop of Newark, confirms the course of native derangement. It is an astonishingly accomplished novel that, along with other recent achievements including Sabbath’s Theater (1995), Operation Shylock (1993), and Patrimony (1991), certifies its author’s place within the American literary pantheon. In the new book, Roth creates a patriotic paragon of wholesome Americana and then wrenches him “out of the longed-for American pastoral, and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral—into the indigenous American berserk.” He does so cunningly, in a marvel of narrative construction.
Seymour Irving Levov is also the antithesis of the Jewish antiheroes, the anguished, cerebral, self-conscious schlemiels who dominate most of Roth’s other works. Known to all as “the Swede,” on account of his rugged, handsome, and un-Semitic mien, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Viking becomes a star in three sports, a Marine Corps drill instructor, and a prosperous businessman. The grandson of a struggling Jewish immigrant, he appears to have assimilated seamlessly into mainstream society and to have fulfilled the elusive promise of “the American Dream.” The Swede marries a Catholic beauty queen, Dawn Dwyer, lives on a splendid one-hundred-acre estate among the rural gentry, and, all in all, seems to belong to an entirely different species from Roth’s gallery of anxious Jews which includes Alexander Portnoy, David Kepesh, Peter Tarnapol, Mickey Sabbath, and Nathan Zuckerman.
At least so thinks Zuckerman, who, at sixty-two, returns to narrate another Roth novel, and, though incontinent and impotent after recent prostate surgery, is much more subdued than the randy man of letters who roils earlier Roth books. His own brush with death has concentrated Zuckerman’s mind on mortality. American Pastoral is a Swedish rhapsody, and Zuckerman is there primarily to ponder the life of Swede Levov, the idol of his Newark neighborhood, “a boy as close to a goy as we were going to get,” who grows up to embody the national dream of equal opportunity for all who are willing to work hard enough to achieve their goal. To Zuckerman, such dreaming becomes indistinguishable from dozing, and he dismisses the prosperous grownup Swede as “a human platitude,” “the embodiment of nothing.” The novelist can find little of interest in an aging man who seems so completely and unself- consciously the embodiment of a stereotype. Solicited by the Swede himself to write up his family’s story, Zuckerman is at first defeated by the ostensible banality of the material.
Zuckerman is astounded by how utterly devoid of interiority or irony the bland Swede seems, but an irony that beggars the writer’s imagination intrudes in a revelation that causes Zuckerman to reassess everything he thinks he knows about the man. Rather than a character created by John R. Tunis (the Horatio Alger of baseball novelists and beloved of Zuckerman the boy), the Swede becomes a miscreant thrown up out of Fyodor Dostoevski. At the end of chapter 1, Zuckerman confesses that his assessment of the Swede was totally, radically mistaken, that it was he, not his childhood champion of Jewish Newark, who was pathetically naïve. Zuckerman later realizes that the Swede, not as ingenuous as he seemed, knew he was fatally ill during their last conversation. Like the reader, Zuckerman also learns that the rational, sanguine Levov had been tormented by a harrowing secret, one that corrodes his indigenous optimism and pushes him to the brink of the abyss. “He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach—that it makes no sense.” Zuckerman strives to make some sense of that negative revelation.
American Pastoral is organized into three sections: “Paradise Remembered,” “The Fall,” and “Paradise Lost,” titles that suggest not merely sociological but also cosmic decline. In the latter two sections, the idyll is shattered and the idol smashed, as the reader discovers how a Norman Rockwell picture has been painted as a pentimento to occlude the image of an Edvard Munch. Arcadia is really Hades. The Swede’s affluent all-American family, living on Arcady Hill Road in posh Old Rimrock, New Jersey, is seriously, lethally dysfunctional. In the dissolution of the Levovs, Roth offers a lesson in recent American history. The Swede is explicitly compared to the debonair John F. Kennedy, who more than any other figure in the United States in the last half of the twentieth century enacted the death of the hero and of heroism. American Pastoral is a work of reluctant, regretful iconoclasm....
(The entire section is 1999 words.)