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Philip Roth American Pastoral
Awards: Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral
(Full name Philip Milton Roth) Born in 1933, Roth is an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, autobiographer, and memoirist.
For further information on Roth's life and career, see CLC , Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 15,...
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Philip Roth American Pastoral
Awards: Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral
(Full name Philip Milton Roth) Born in 1933, Roth is an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, autobiographer, and memoirist.
For further information on Roth's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 15, 22, 31, 47, 66, and 86.
American Pastoral (1997) recounts the life story of Seymour "Swede" Levov, as remembered by Roth's alter ego and frequent protagonist, novelist Nathan Zuckerman. Zuckerman learns more about the life of his schoolmate Seymour Levov, a Jewish, blond-haired, blue-eyed, high school sports hero at their 46th reunion, through Levov's brother, Jerry. Seymour has passed away, a startling revelation to Zuckerman. Levov was a Newark, New Jersey neigborhood idol, blessed with good looks and popularity. He inherited his father's glove manufacturing business, became very successful, married an Irish Catholic girl—Miss New Jersey of 1949—and purchased a stone manor in the country. His idyllic and tranquil world is shattered when his daughter, Merry, in conjunction with a radical group, the Weathermen, sets off a bomb that kills a doctor in the neighborhood post office. Merry becomes a fugitive, is raped, destitute, and eventually involved in three other bombing deaths. She becomes a member of the Jain, a fanatical Hindu sect with extremist ideas. She does not bathe, in efforts to protect the water, and rarely eats, in order to preserve plant and animal life. When Seymour finds his daughter five years after her disappearance, he is shocked and outraged; later, at his reunion, he learns that she is dead. Divided into three sections entitled "Paradise Remembered," "The Fall," and "Paradise Lost," American Pastoral examines many themes. Philip Hensher writes: "Like many of [Roth's] books, it examines love, and the rejection of love; in taking on a terrorist who rejects the love of her family, and the love of the country which nurtured her, he has found an ideal, satisfying subject for his recurrent obsession."
The novel initially received mixed reviews. Commentators panned long, drawn out passages in the book, such as the extensive detailing of glove manufacturing processes. Other critics raved, among them Donna Rifkind, who asserted that American Pastoral is "… possibly the finest work of [Roth's] career." Lauded for its satirical commentary on American society, the book was also revered for its sensitively drawn characters, its epic qualities, and its examination of "the failures of American idealism in public life," according to Sarah J. Fodor. Many critics noted similarities between American Pastoral and the biblical story of Job. Reviewers concurred that Roth is a master of providing descriptive, detailed prose, but felt that his nostalgic chronicle of American history from the 1940s to the 1970s was strained and occasionally heavy-handed. Despite these shortcomings, critics noted Roth's skill at capturing detail and his depth of characterization. Michiko Kakutani observed "[American Pastoral] is one of Mr. Roth's most powerful novels ever, a big, rough-hewn work built on a grand design, a book that is as moving, generous and ambitious as his last novel, Sabbath's Theater (1995), was sour, solipsistic and narrow…. Roth uses his sharp, reportorial eye not to satirize his characters but to flesh them out from within."
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Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories (novella and short stories) 1959
Letting Go (novel) 1962
When She Was Good (novel) 1967
Portnoy's Complaint (novel) 1969
Our Gang (novel) 1971
The Breast (novel) 1972
The Great American Novel (novel) 1973
My Life as a Man (novel) 1974
Reading Myself and Others (essays and criticism) 1975
The Professor of Desire (novel) 1977
∗The Ghost Writer (novel) 1979
∗Zuckerman Unbound (novel) 1981
∗The Anatomy Lesson (novel) 1983
The Counterlife (novel) 1986
The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (autobiography) 1988
Deception (novel) 1990
Patrimony: A True Story (memoir) 1990
Operation Shylock: A Confession (novel) 1993
Sabbath's Theater (novel) 1995
American Pastoral (novel) 1997
I Married a Communist (novel) 1998
∗These works, along with the epilogue "The Prague Orgy," were published as Zuckerman's Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue in 1985.
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SOURCE: "A Postwar Paradise Shattered From Within," in New York Times, April 15, 1997, pp. Cl1, C14.
[In the following review, Kakutani praises American Pastoral, lauding the books sensitively observed cast of characters and calling it "a fiercely affecting work of art."]
Back in 1960, Philip Roth gave a speech in which he argued that American life was becoming so surreal, so stupefying, so maddening, that it had ceased to be a manageable subject for novelists. He argued that real life, the life out of newspaper headlines, was outdoing the imagination of novelists, and that fiction writers were in fact abandoning the effort to grapple with "the grander social and political phenomena of our times" and were turning instead "to the construction of wholly imaginary worlds, and to a celebration of the self."
These remarks—made even before John F. Kennedy's assassination and the social upheavals of the 60's magnified the surreal quotient of American life—help illuminate what Tom Wolfe identified (with considerable self-serving hyperbole) in the late 80's as a retreat from realism. They also help explain the direction that Mr. Roth's own fiction has taken over the last three and a half decades, his long obsession with alter egos and mirror games and the transactions between life and art.
In his latest novel, American Pastoral, however, Mr. Roth does away with—or nearly does away with—these narcissistic pyrotechnics to tackle the very subjects he once spurned as unmanageable: namely, what happened to America in the decades between World War II and Vietnam, between the complacencies of the 50's and the confusions of the 60's, 70's and 80's. With the story of Seymour (Swede) Levov, Mr. Roth has chronicled the rise and fall of one man's fortunes and in doing so created a resonant parable of American innocence and disillusion.
The resulting book is one of Mr. Roth's most powerful novels ever, a big, rough-hewn work built on a grand design, a book that is as moving, generous and ambitious as his last novel, Sabbath's Theater, was sour, solipsistic and narrow.
As Mr. Roth has observed himself, his books tend to "zigzag" between the two poles of his imagination: between the willfully decorous (Letting Go, The Ghost Writer) and the willfully outrageous (Portnoy's Complaint, Our Gang), the Jamesian and the Rabelaisian. It's eminently clear that American Pastoral belongs to the first category, and it's also clear that its polite, dutiful hero, Seymour Levov, is the opposite number of such flamboyant egotists as Mickey Sabbath.
At the same time, Mr. Roth has taken these two contradictory impulses in himself, and used them to limn two contradictory impulses in American history: the first, embodied by Seymour Levov, representing that optimistic strain of Emersonian self-reliance, predicated upon a belief in hard work and progress; the second, embodied by the Swede's fanatical daughter, Merry, representing the darker side of American individualism, what Mr. Roth calls "the fury, the violence, and the desperation" of "the indigenous American berserk."
Whereas the collision of the prudent and the transgressive, the normal and the Dionysian, has been the source of uproarious comedy in earlier Roth novels, that same collision in Pastoral generates a familial—and generational—showdown with tragic consequences, one that also becomes a kind of metaphor for America's tumultuous lurch into the second half of the 20th century.
We do not get the details of Seymour's story directly from Mr. Roth, but through the prism of Mr. Roth's favorite hero and mouthpiece, Nathan Zuckerman, the infamous star of the Zuckerman trilogy, who, we're told, now lives in seclusion in the New England countryside, his body and spirit ravaged by surgery and cancer.
Nathan, it seems, idolized Seymour in high school. The Swede's success on the athletic field, his goyish good looks, his sweetness of spirit, all combined to make him an all-American hero, a golden boy seemingly blessed with endless good fortune. After high school, he became a marine, married Miss New Jersey of 1949, took over his father's glove business and bought a big old house in the New Jersey countryside.
It turns out, however, that Seymour has become a broken man, all his bright hopes shattered by his daughter, Merry, who in 1968 at the height of anti-Vietnam war protests set off a bomb that killed a man. In Nathan's telling (or reimagining) of Seymour's story, Merry emerges as both a self-righteous Fury, oddly reminiscent of the implacable Lucy Nelson in When She Was Good, and an exaggerated version of Portnoy and Sabbath, the rebellious child programmed to reject all that her parents' generation holds dear.
As depicted by Mr. Roth (er, Nathan), Seymour comes across as a regular guy—a kind, forbearing man who unexpectedly finds himself chewed up and spit out by the noisy machinery of history. Such a character might ordinarily seem a little bland, even boring, but Mr. Roth describes him with such authority and insight that he's able to make the Swede's decency as palpable—and yes, compelling—as the manic craziness of his earlier creations. Seymour, we realize, is the quintessential innocent, a man whose life has broken into a Before and After, a man who finds himself trapped between the moral certainties of his father and the angry denunciations of his daughter.
Certainly the vexing relationship between fathers and children, and the mind-boggling disparity between one's expectations of the world and its grim reality are perennial issues for Mr. Roth's heroes, but in Pastoral, they are turned from purely personal dilemmas into broader social ones. We are made to contemplate the demise of the immigrant dream cherished by men like Seymour's father, the souring of the generational struggle during the 60's, and the connections between assimilation and rootlessness and anomie.
Although Mr. Roth sometimes works too hard to turn Seymour into a symbol (he is shown imitating Johnny Appleseed and is compared to John F. Kennedy), although his efforts to encompass three generations of history are occasionally strained, Pastoral is far more fluent, far more emotionally tactile than the novel's broader outline suggests. Writing less in anger than in sorrow, Mr. Roth uses his sharp, reportorial eye not to satirize his characters but to flesh them out from within.
Indeed, this book boasts one of the most sensitively observed gallery of people to emerge from a Roth novel in years. In addition to Seymour and his vituperative brother, Jerry, there's their father, Lou, a businessman reminiscent of Mr. Roth's own father in Patrimony, with "absolutely totalistic notions of what is good and what is right." There's Dawn, the Swede's beautiful wife, a woman who is neither a castrating witch nor a passive doormat—something of a rare occurrence in recent Roth novels—but a fully fashioned human being, grieved and perplexed by her daughter's defection. And there is a rich, variegated supporting cast of friends, neighbors and employees, who lend ballast to Seymour's world.
Even Merry—who at one point is described as "chaos itself"—turns out to be a complex creature, enigmatic and alarming, but also oddly recognizable: a young woman captive to her emotions, impulsive, rebellious and angry, a girl who in a space of months has exchanged 4-H meetings for violent political demonstrations. Like her father, the reader struggles to connect the dots in her life, struggles to explain how this cherished daughter of privileged parents could end up a fugitive from justice. But then, that is Mr. Roth's point: that events are not rational, that people are not knowable, that life is not coherent.
In the end, the saga of the Levov family is one of those stories out of the headlines that make the reader's head reel, one of those stories Mr. Roth once characterized as a threat to the novelist's powers of invention. It is his achievement in these pages that he has not only tackled and imaginatively harnessed such a daunting subject but has also used it to create a fiercely affecting work of art.
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SOURCE: "The Trouble with Swede Levov," in New York Times Book Review, April 20, 1997, p. 8.
[In the following review, Wood berates the slow pace of American Pastoral, but praises its prose and combination of rage and elegy. Noting similarities between Pastoral and John Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies, Wood comments on both novels' treatments of national history and their "mind-numbing realism."]
Who would have thought Nathan Zuckerman would fall in love with normality, with the all-American life? With the old idea of the melting pot as order and progress, a pacified history in which resentment and misunderstanding fade away across the generations? With Thanksgiving as a form of ethnic truce, where the Jews and the Irish hang out together as if no one had ever crucified anyone? This is, after all, the garrulous, manic hero of five Philip Roth novels, and the subtle fictional critic of Mr. Roth's autobiography, The Facts. His alter id, as you might say, the man whose business is to get out of control and give offense. "I am your permission," Zuckerman tells Mr. Roth in that book, reproving him for lapsing into the tame decencies of the uninvented life, "your indiscretion, the key to disclosure." "The distortion called fidelity is not your metier," Zuckerman insists. And Mr. Roth himself says he is pleased to have escaped the constrictions of the Jamesian tact and elegance he once admired, liberating his talent for what he calls "extremist fiction."
Yet here is Zuckerman attending a class reunion of veterans from Weequahic High in Newark, checking out the prostates and remarriages and high-powered jobs and the dead fathers; having dinner in New York with a former star athlete from the same school, a nice guy called Seymour Levov, alias the Swede, and wondering at the fellow's sheer likable ordinariness. "Swede Levov's life, for all I knew, had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore just great, right in the American grain." The little clause ("for all I knew") gives the game away. Of course Zuckerman is wrong about this—there wouldn't be a novel here if he weren't, let alone a Philip Roth novel. "I was wrong," Zuckerman says handsomely. "Never more mistaken about anyone in my life." But what's interesting about the book is that Zuckerman could have thought, even for an instant, that he was right; and that we can't, in the end, know how right or wrong he is, since he is making everything up, dreaming "a realistic chronicle," as he says, quoting the old Johnny Mercer song ("Dream when the day is through"), and taking off into history as he imagines it. It's true that the imagining is grounded in the most meticulous reconstructions of old times and places—the Levov family glove factory, the spreading acres of west New Jersey, a Miss America competition in Atlantic City, the beat-up neighborhoods of what used to be the city of Newark—and it gets easier and easier to forget that Zuckerman's industry and imagination are providing all this. He gives us plenty of clues, though, before he vanishes for good on page 89, off into fiction, in the middle of a dance with an old schoolmate named Joy Helpern. "You get them wrong before you meet them," Zuckerman says of "people" in general, "while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again." How could the writer of fiction be exempt from this contagion? Zuckerman/Roth would reply that there is no exemption; only the need, whether you're a novelist or not, to keep imagining other people, and the hope that guesses may give life to the dead and the fallen and the lost.
Zuckerman attributes his attachment to the romance of ordinariness to a cancer scare of his own, but he offers a subtler diagnosis in The Facts. "The whole point about your fiction (and in America, not only yours)," he tells Mr. Roth, "is that the imagination is always in transit between the good boy and the bad boy—that's the tension that leads to revelation." Swede Levov is the good boy for whom life is just great—except that he's not. He is the good boy whose life turns to disaster—as if that's what good boys were for, and only the bad boys go free. Or he is the good boy whom Zuckerman can imagine and mourn for only in this way.
Swede is alive when the story opens, dead soon after. Zuckerman picks up a few details of his life at the reunion, notably from Swede's ferocious brother, a bullying cardiac surgeon in Miami. The rest is his dreamed chronicle. In and out of Zuckerman's mind the story hinges on Swede's 16-year-old daughter, Merry, an only, pampered child, who has fallen in with a section of the Weathermen and blown up a rural post office, killing a doctor who happened to be mailing his bills. The time is 1968. Merry goes into hiding, is raped and becomes destitute, gets involved in further bombings in Oregon, winds up back in Newark, stick-thin, filthy, a veil over her face, having become a Jain [a member of a fanatical version of a Hindu sect], dedicated to such extremes of nonviolence that she can scarcely bring herself to eat because of the murder of plant life involved. The novel stages an encounter between Swede and his derelict-looking daughter, and the scene manages to be both shocking and discreet.
But the novel revolves not so much around this scene as around what Merry has done, the deaths she has caused, and the absurd, irresistible question of how this respectable Jewish athlete and his Irish, former-Miss-New-Jersey wife could have given birth to this once angry, now dislocated, apparently reasoning, weirdly unthinking girl. The question can't be answered, of course, but causalities keep shaping themselves in the mind. Is it because the parents are so respectable, so decent and so liberal, as much against the war in Vietnam as their daughter, that the girl has to turn out this way? Is there an American allegory here, immigrant generations rising to prosperity only to fall into violence and despair? Or have the parents done everything they can and should have, and is it Merry the changeling who reminds us that the inexplicable exists? "And what is wrong with their life?" the novel ends. "What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?"
This is an answer to Zuckerman's own merciless portrait of the (female) intellectual who laughs with delight at the sight of historical disorder, "enjoying enormously the assailability, the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things." But the answer itself still seeks to moralize the wreck of a world, as if Zuckerman had never heard of Job, as if the Levovs' virtue ought really, after all, to have been a protection for them, rather than an invitation to damage.
American Pastoral is a little slow—as befits its crumbling subject, but unmistakably slow all the same—and I must say I miss Zuckerman's manic energies. But the mixture of rage and elegy in the book is remarkable, and you have only to pause over the prose to feel how beautifully it is elaborated, to see that Mr. Roth didn't entirely abandon Henry James after all. A sentence beginning "Only after strudel and coffee," for instance, lasts almost a full page and evokes a whole shaky generation, without once losing its rhythm or its comic and melancholy logic, until it arrives, with a flick of the conjuror's hand, at a revelation none of us can have been waiting for.
Because both novels are hefty and self-consciously American, trying to rethink national history, because both deal in painstaking and slightly mind-numbing realism, because both begin in New Jersey and end in hell, American Pastoral invites comparison with John Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies, The chief difference is that Mr. Updike's novel ends in a secular apocalypse, the last act in the story of the death of a Christian God, while Mr. Roth's ends in the imagination of ruin, the death of a Jew's dream of ordinariness. The difference is not extreme, although both stories are.
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SOURCE: "Raging Roth," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 4, 1997, p. 2.
[In the following review Eder briefly compares John Updike's novel In the Beauty of the Lilies to Roth's American Pastoral.
Those two dray horses of American fiction, one dapple and one bay, one Protestant and one Jewish, are still plodding along in odd and paradoxical tandem: the dappled John Updike a step or two before the darker Philip Roth.
A year ago, Updike brought out his American saga, In the Beauty of the Lilies. It was evocative and somber. Now Roth comes with his counterpart saga, sardonically entitled American Pastoral. It is somber and raging.
Updike killed off his longtime protagonist and story-bearer, Rabbit Angstrom, several years ago, not requiring him for Lilies. Nathan Zuckerman is required for American Pastoral. Impotent and incontinent after a prostate operation and 70 years old, he has lost some of his obsessions, notably sex, but not his principal one: rage.
Relinquishment is part of Updike's message. Although Roth has used other voices besides Zuckerman's (Sabbath, the fearsome ejaculator in Sabbath's Theater), for all of his protagonists, relinquishing is tantamount to annihilation.
Some have seen Zuckerman as an alter-ego for Roth, but it is more accurate and useful to see him as a glove-puppet. Contrivance is evident in a puppet show, but when it is as brilliant as Roth's, the show is its own world. Whoever Roth may be, Zuckerman, insatiable in argument and judgment—I prevail therefore I am—is one of the memorable figures in contemporary fiction, though perhaps he has been memorable too often and too long.
In Pastoral, Zuckerman tugs on a glove-puppet of his own. Unlike Roth's glove (Zuckerman himself), his cannot withstand the gesticulatory passion of the hand that wields it. It keeps ripping. In fact, Zuckerman's puppet—a well-meaning, idealistic, assimilated Jew named Seymour Levov—is mounted precisely for the purpose of being ripped.
Swede, as Seymour is nicknamed, is the son of Lou Levov, a Newark, New Jersey, glove manufacturer who started out with piecework until World War II military orders made him a millionaire. In contrast to Lou, an old-fashioned and wittily chauvinist Jewish liberal, Swede seeks to melt into the American pot.
Fate makes it almost inevitable. Not only was Swede a high school sports legend back in the '40s when such a thing was a rarity among the sons of Jewish families, but he is blond and blue-eyed. He had "the steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask," Zuckerman writes.
It is, of course, characteristic of Roth's narrators to deal in stereotypes that, if reversed ("thick-lipped, expressive Semitic mask"), would be intolerable. The shock effect is intended to trouble—a sharp defensive retort to times when the aforesaid reversal would have been no reversal but simply the way many people talked. By now, it has aged beyond troubling to wearying, from defense to offense.
Zuckerman's account of Swede begins as a memory of the older schoolmate whom he hero-worshiped. When both men are in their 60s, and Zuckerman has become a celebrated writer, Swede diffidently requests a meeting. There is a hint at some deep trouble. Trouble is oxygen to Zuckerman, but Swede turns out to be bland, upbeat and utterly unrevealing.
There are a few facts. He took over and expanded the glove business, married an Irish American Catholic, moved to an expensive WASP suburb, divorced, remarried and had three sons. Oxygen denied, Zuckerman puts it all aside until 10 years after the meeting. Then, at a reunion, Swede's vitriolic younger brother reveals the darkness beneath the bland prosperity.
Swede and Dawn, his first wife, had a daughter, Merry, who turned away from her protected and cherishing childhood. She became a rebellious adolescent, a Vietnam War activist and eventually an underground terrorist whose bombs killed four people.
Out of this, Zuckerman finds his material. Never lacking in either artistic or personal arrogance, he appropriates Swede for an incandescent fiction. Its object is to argue the self-defeating folly of trying to assimilate Jewishness into the American mainstream.
The result is fascinating and deliberately wrongheaded: a Zuckerman first draft rent by contradiction and alternative versions. Inspired and obnoxious by turns, it overprints its wavering and uncertain portrait of Swede with a glittering and tumultuous portrait of his creator. The hands are Esau's but, as was remarked of the artistry of an earlier, biblical Zuckerman, "the voice is Jacob's."
Zuckerman's Swede is both a naive, well-meaning idealist and the scourging interior voice that revenges itself on idealism. He marries Dawn Dwyer because she is lovable, Irish Catholic and Miss New Jersey in the Miss America pageant. Swede's grandfather immigrated to America; he will complete this move by immigrating to inside-America on this three-lane royal highway (Roth's exuberant irony never confines itself to a single lane).
They buy a 200-year-old stone house on 100 wooded acres in an idyllic, picture-postcard community. Swede loves the general store with its quaint sub-post office, the country characters who hang out there and its American flag. He loves the trees, the flowers, the birds. He may be the first major Roth character to revel in nature and the mystical beauty of light—in short, in the American pastoral of the title. And what, we may wonder, is this would-be Updike character doing here? He is here to be punished; Zuckerman sees to it.
He devises an impossibly endearing little Merry: fey, wise and passionately loved (at one point, among his myriad torments, Swede wonders if he's been too passionate). Then she develops a stutter, grows fat, slovenly, rebellious. For Zuckerman, speaking through Swede, this is no normal adolescent mess but cruel judgment on the assimilating delusion. The bombing and Merry's disappearance are more such judgment. So are Dawn's nervous breakdown and, on recovering, her affair with a WASP neighbor. No mere adultery for Zuckerman; it has to be race hatred. His Swede goes into a fugue state, an obsessive mix of hallucination and reality.
A sinister witch-woman spews hatred on Merry's behalf, attempts to seduce him and finally leads him to her. He finds his daughter living, filthy and near starvation, in her extremist version of a Hindu sect. If her political radicalism, terrorism and hatred had felt to him like anti-Semitic punishment, her benevolent serenity is an even worse affront. None of this is narratively fixed. Zuckerman tries on alternative, swirling hells for his protagonist. Hell is not other people. It is oneself and one's guilt for betraying tradition.
"You wanted Miss America?" crows Swede's angry brother. "Well, you've got her with a vengeance—she's your daughter."
American Pastoral scintillates with more Rothian wit, paradox, eloquent tantrums and absurd pratfalls placed at the exit of each irresistible argument than can be counted. In embattlement and the old matrix of persecution, he strikes a vivid blaze. Outside it (another Roth characteristic) stand one or two wonderfully human survivors; in this case, Swede's wife and, despite his own obsessions, his father.
Yet Roth's recent books, for all their ingenious fever, are growing a leaden shell. The battling is increasingly forced and overtaken by time. American Pastoral, set mainly from the '40s to the '70s, is not an opening but a closing. It is Zuckerman fighting his Great War at his one-man veterans' reunion.
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SOURCE: "Weather Girl," in Nation, Vol. 264, No. 18, May 12, 1997, pp. 63-4.
[In the following review, Gitlin faults Roth's flat prose, sluggish excursions, and sideways motions in American Pastoral, but notes that "Inside this long, viscous book, a solid, serious allegory struggles to get out."]
You have to admire Philip Roth for refusing to repeat himself in his twenty-second book. American Pastoral is a family epic about social breakdown and freakout—Thomas Mann goes Jersey. Roth puts on a straightforward disposition. He goes pre-postmodern. His antics and fantasies are minimal, as if Roth the shtickmeister-magician is just keeping his hand in. The dead stay dead. The protagonists are winners who, after long free rides, can't win for losing. Roth treats these uncomprehending scramblers with a certain troubled distance and intermittent compassion. He's aiming to bag the big saga about the doom in the heart of the American dream—in particular about what John Murray Cuddihy called the ordeal of assimilation.
American Pastoral opens awkwardly, as if a new script had been badly dubbed into the mouth of the familiar bitching god-child Nathan Zuckerman. Nathan exudes lyric nostalgia for his childhood hero, Swede Levov of Newark. Swede was born Seymour Irving Levov, "a boy as close to a goy as we were going to get." blond and blue-eyed, his face a "steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask." This "household Apollo of the Weequahic Jews" starred in football, basketball and baseball. Cheerleaders rendered him special tribute—and then this triple-threat embodiment of conventional responsibility went off to the Marines in 1945.
The contradiction in Jews who want to fit in and want to stand out, who insist they are different and insist they are no different, resolved itself in the triumphant spectacle of this Swede who was actually only another of our neighborhood Seymours whose forebears had been Solomons and Sauls and who would themselves beget Stephens who would in turn beget Shawns.
Swede's glove-manufacturing father, Lou, had worked himself up from a tannery job he took after leaving school at 14 to help support a family of nine. Lou Levov
was one of those slum-reared Jewish fathers whose rough-hewn, undereducated perspective goaded a whole generation of striving, college-educated Jewish sons: a father for whom everything is an unshakable duty, for whom there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between, a father whose compound of ambitions, biases, and beliefs is so unruffled by careful thinking that he isn't as easy to escape from as he seems. Limited men with limitless energy; men quick to be friendly and quick to be fed up; men for whom the most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything. And we were their sons. It was our job to love them.
Thus Roth at his best, with his gift for miniatures in broad strokes.
But what Nathan is doing here, besides delaying the action for some ninety pages, isn't clear. After the false start. Roth resigns the first-person narratorship, whereupon plot moves and chaos mounts. Swede marries shiksa goddess Dawn, petite and Catholic Miss New Jersey of 1949, and they move to the pastures of bucolic Old Rimrock, there to raise the bright child Merry, while Swede settles into the manufacturing pleasures of the postwar boom. Gloves are a good business in an age of decorum, when a well-dressed woman would own twenty-five pair, one for each of her dress-up colors. And thus into the sixties, when the achieving, believing Levovs, Who Had It All, lose it. The family blows up because Merry, a stutterer who beams heavy sexual vibes at her father, finds herself in 1968 a not-so-sweet 16 who falls in among antiwar terrorists in New York. Although he opposes the war, Swede cannot fathom the depth of his daughter's fury against everything in America that certifies his success. He forbids her to hang out with her radical friends and gets her to a therapist. Surprise! Merry blows up the community store that houses the rural post office—the only federal facility around—killing a local doctor whose specialty is good works.
Merry goes underground, and the family trouble really begins. An emissary from Merry's underground cell offers Swede a sexual invitation. Dawn goes crazy and Swede goes philandering. Merry goes from bad to worse. Swede proves helpless. Events of suburban angst and entanglement follow. Family intrigue smolders. Things fall apart.
The settings are rich enough, the characters vivid enough, that the result ought to be more moving, more propulsive, than it is. The novel is not devoid of rewards but it is bloated, the prose frequently flat, with motion more sideways than forward. The characters Hash ahead and back, but we don't feel them in motion. The plot pauses for stretches so long you can hear the grass grow and brown. A long excursus into the workings of the Levov glove factory is so sluggish it reminds the reader that Roth is no Melville. The prose brightens when Roth larks around (when Swede, trying to figure out his daughter, argues with a phantasmagorical Angela Davis) or when family acrimony ignites.
Here is Roth's real subject: how people horrify the ones they love. The writing comes to life when Swede inveighs against the ungrateful blacks who riot in Newark in 1967. It rises to the quivering point when he encounters his broken daughter, and when his lurid imagination goes to work on the disasters that have befallen her. It rises yet again when he calls up his brother Jerry, a multiply divorced surgeon, to ask advice about what to do with Merry, and Jerry keeps an office of patients waiting while screaming at Swede about everything that he has botched about his life. What Roth catches most convincingly are Jewish males ranting against a whole world that spits in their half-closed eyes.
Mark Twain said about Wagner's music that it was better than it sounded. The cruel thing to say about Roth would be that American Pastoral is better than it reads. Inside this long, viscous book, a solid, serious allegory struggles to get out. Roth has hung his family antiromance on the varieties of sixties experience, so his story depends on whether he can bring the wildness of that time to life and make his characters live their doom. Mainly, he doesn't. The family arguments feel forced and sometimes clunky. The reader never penetrates Merry's radical circle but comes to it by hearsay, through her fights with her father, when she says things like, "They were students. Now they organize people for the betterment of the Vietnamese." Merry has gone from golden-haired maiden of ballet class and speech therapy to avenging angel of the Third World in fifteen minutes, and not only docs Swede not seem to grasp what has happened to her, Roth doesn't either. The writer who would bring Merry to life would have to bring to life more than Merry, would have to re-create the milieu that reached out and snared the Merries out of their Old Rimrocks—the movements, media, raptures, hopes, rages, entitlements, moral defaults.
Given all his effort to get social details right, from family histories to Watergate hearings, Roth's sixties are chronologically odd. Merry bombs the store on February 3, 1968—before the Columbia occupation, before the Chicago Götterdämmerung and during the Tet offensive, when the antiwar movement was only just turning (in a phrase of that time) "from protest to resistance." The militant vanguard wasn't anywhere near bombing. Two years would pass before the Weather Underground's 11th Street townhouse in New York City blew up, killing three of their own. Two and a half would pass before a cell bombed the army math research center in Madison, Wisconsin, costing the life of a graduate student working late. Merry explodes prematurely.
Moreover, her mother, who obsesses about the Miss America pageant of 1949, doesn't notice its successor of 1968, when feminists organized their first visible demonstration. Six months after their daughter had gone underground in a cloud of ranting against her sellout liberal bourgeois parents, you might have thought the Levovs would be paying closer attention to the upheaval going off around them.
But then Roth offers a clue that the sixties might be only a backdrop to his private plot and not its dynamic at all. Merry, he writes late in the game, "entered the world screaming and the screaming did not stop." Long before the Vietnam War and the counterwar, she was an infant out of control. Her darkness was presumably bred in the bone. The Levovs' journey toward light is cursed by fate, not history. If so, then the moral point of the family saga grows dim, and Roth's Levovs come to resemble the hapless parents of Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child, whose grotesque son is a Neanderthal throwback, not so much evil as clueless. This piece of fatalism makes Roth's anachronisms less consequential, but also renders much of the story's atmospherics redundant.
Could it be that Roth's failure to bring the sixties to life is more than Roth's? Is there some larger cultural blockage, a case of clogged cognitive arteries? Precious little realistic fiction has brought the movements of the sixties to light. There are exceptions: the early chapters of Rosellen Brown's Civil Wars invoking the civil rights movement; the flashback chapter in Marge Piercy's Vida on the organizing of a demonstration in 1967; the Boston commune sequence in John Sayles's Union Dues; Sol Yurick's The Bag; and, in more lurid vein, sections of Updike's Rabbit Redux, Malamud's The Tenants and John Gardner's Sunlight Dialogues. Why, with all the scribbling through and after this period, with so much cultural baggage riding on this freight, is there so little fictional invention to show?
Roth saw the problem coming even before the self-inventions of Richard Nixon and Lee Harvey Oswald: Reality puts fictionists to bashful shrugs and shame. And it's not only the first-magnitude stars who make Jay Gatz look banal. In the second tier of the famous, consider only the truelife confidence men and women Timothy Leary, Eldridge Cleaver, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and Bernardine Dohrn.
Norman Mailer once observed that a novelist needs a sense of the real. And that sense is exactly what shook, rattled, rolled and eventually blew up in the sixties. The ground of what was taken for granted liquefied. Feelings were volcanic, and the lava rolled all over the land. The recognizable stopped being recognized. Plausibility? Cause and effect? By the standards of normality, means were peeling away from ends. Vielcong winning territory? Drop napalm. Suburbia dull? Drop acid. Demonstrations don't stop the war? Declare fealty to Albania and build antipersonnel weapons. When ordinary people think extraordinary thoughts, realistic imagination runs aground.
Even most of the great social novelists were best in, and on, the interval between revolutions. Balzac avoided the 1789 revolution itself. Dickens's French Revolution is most evocative when it tracks the course of wine through the cobblestoned Paris streets, not the course of ideas through the synapses. Raskolnikov is an emblematic schemer of the run-up to revolution, not a cadre. Malraux's China and Spain were overheated inventions—great in moments, but mainly abstract. There remain, of course, the achievements of the Dostoyevsky of The Possessed, of Babel and Silone, the Rebecca West of The Birds Fall Down, Lessing of The Golden Notebook and the Martha Quest books—a short list for a long history of radical politics. Many a critic has rightly observed that the large social canvas is not the forte of American writers in the first place. Then Philip Roth's failure looks overdetermined, and the odds against the realistic novel of American radicalism may be insuperable.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1717
SOURCE: "The Indigenous American Berserk," in New Leader, Vol. LXXX, No. 9, May 19, 1997, pp. 18-19.
[In the following review of American Pastoral, Cohen critiques Roth's repetitive use of his character Nathan Zuckerman, but praises the author's narrative energies, claiming that age seems to have "enriched [Roth's] perspective."]
I suspect I am not alone among Philip Roth's many readers in finding the prospect of another installment in the Nathan Zuckerman saga about as appealing as a tax audit. Surely by now, at century's end, few depths remain unplumbed in this person fashioned in the sort-of-but-not-quite-though-pro-vocatively-similar image of the creator Himself. It's no accident that the best of Roth's recent books (and they are terrifically good), Patrimony and Sabbath's Theater, elbowed the ongoing tribulations of N. Z. aside to make room for more colorful, more dramatic, and ultimately more moving and revealing subjects—Herman Roth and that putzy poor man's Lear, Mickey Sabbath. You could almost feel the relief in the prose. No leaden reflections, no coy games of peekaboo with the mirror; just a writer of prodigious energies and consummate skill making good on that cliché of the mature artist: working at the height of his powers.
The first section of American Pastoral, concerning the sudden, improbable interest taken by a certain Nathan Zuckerman in a semilegendary figure from his past named Seymour "Swede" Levov, may be off-putting to some. "Ridiculously, perhaps, at the onset of old age, I had only to see his signature at the foot of the letter to be swamped by memories of him, both on and off the field, that were some 50 years old and yet still captivating." Well, maybe not so captivating. For all the memory retrieval that goes on here—the postwar Newark childhood, the Jewish petit-bourgeois milieu, the love of baseball, the many "shards of reality" that attach themselves to the memory of Swede Levov—it's hard not to be aware of the labor involved as the usual Rothian suspects are meticulously rounded up in long, leisurely, wide-body paragraphs that never quite gather momentum.
And yet, going down these not-yet-mean streets once again, fighting to stay alert, it's easy to miss what actually is new here. Or rather, what's so old and enduring a preoccupation for Roth that by approaching it straight on—as he does throughout this strange, complex and extraordinary novel—he makes it feel new: the profound strangeness and remoteness of the American self.
There has always been a deep strand of Chekhovian melancholy in Roth's literary fabric, and it is powerfully and abundantly present in American Pastoral. The inscrutable hiddenness of life ("the knowledge," as Sabbath put it, "that everything subterranean beats everything terranean by a mile"); the tricky disjunctions of self; the failure to understand anyone's intentions fully, including your own, and yet the endless compulsion, if not responsibility, to try to understand them—from the beginning of Roth's career these have provided an undertow of somberness, a countercurrent running below the crashing waves of rage, sex and bravado, asking, What does it mean to be good? And answering, It is impossible to know. And doubly impossible from the outside.
"The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway." So Zuckerman begins to conclude, as he's drawn into the—seemingly—banal, prosperous and uneventful life story of Swede Levov. "It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: We're wrong."
If this sounds a touch didactic, a theme baldly in search of an illustration, get used to it—there are easily two dozen such passages in the novel. The schema is foregrounded throughout. As opposed to the geyser-like eruptions of Portnoy or Sabbath, Swede Levov, we see right off, is a "good" son in the mode of Paul Hertz and Gabe Wallach of Letting Go—a man of restraint and responsibility, a factory-owner, a homeowner, a tree-owner (this is a pastoral, after all); most tellingly in the Roth cosmology, a man who does not shtup every young girl he can. "He was our Kennedy," Zuckerman recalls, ignoring this last point. But Swede's trajectory, as tracked by the old Weequahic High gang, shares some of that heady postwar glamour—a Jew who in every visible way, from his athletic prowess to his blond hair to his shiksa wife to his rural estate in Old Rimrock, New Jersey, has climbed as close to WASP heights as one can. In short: an American success story. Also in short: a man headed for The Fall (the capitals are Roth's). "The tragedy of the man not set up for tragedy—that is every man's tragedy."
Jerry Levov, the "bad" (read: multiply divorced) tell-it-like-it-is younger brother, has his own take on Swede's abrupt death. Here's Zuckerman's paraphrase:
"The Swede is nice, that is to say passive, that is to say trying always to do the right thing, a socially controlled character who doesn't always burst out, doesn't yield to rage ever. Will not have the angry quality as his liability, so doesn't get it as an asset either. According to this theory, it's the no-rage that kills him in the end. Whereas aggression is cleansing or curing."
This last sentiment, which nicely describes the method of Portnoy and Sabbath, should not be taken at face value here. For none of the aggression in American Pastoral—and there is a great deal—proves even remotely cleansing or curative. It is simply what is the case. Roth depicts a world whose energies of order must forever yield to a counterforce of destruction that erupts without warning. "People think of history in the long term," Zuckerman observes, "but history, in fact, is a very sudden thing."
History arrives in the Swede's life in the form of his teenage daughter, Merry, who amid the benevolent fluency of late '60s American life has been cursed with a stutter. It may be organic, it may be psychological; whatever its origins, it's simply there, as furious and intractable and chaotic as adolescence itself. Roth portrays this affliction and the minor damage it radiates with great specificity and patience. The major damage comes later, when, in the novel's devastating event, Merry's Weathermen-like demolition of the local post office kills a man and sends her underground. Even then, as history crashes the stage, the reader is pulled irresistibly back to that stuttering young girl in that perfect old house. "What the hell happened to our smart Jewish kids?" Swede's father asks. "They have parents they can't hate anymore because their parents are so good to them, so they hate America instead."
Hence, the 1960s. Among the many vigorous if not obsessional currents in the novel is its revisiting of the arguments of that contentious era (and no Roth novel lacks for arguments: He makes more and better use of the exclamation mark than any writer alive). Though Swede and his wife are carefully depicted as antiwar liberals, determinedly keeping the family glove factory in Newark during the white flight years, such "goodness," Roth seems to suggest, was in hindsight a form of denial, a shallow and self-deluding dream. "Tolerant respect for every position," says Jerry. "Always holding things together. And look where the f― it's got you!" Sooner or later the liberal dream must give way to the hot light of nightmare, referred to here as "the indigenous American berserk."
Exactly what's so indigenously American about hating your parents, or for that matter blowing up buildings, is a question the novel, for all its three decades worth of distance on the era, never answers. One might also wonder if in portraying the '60s as an aberrational tear in the American fabric, the writer may be hitting the nostalgia button a bit too hard. Did children really love their parents so much better in older, whiter, more orderly Newark? Roth's social history, for all its heat, is curiously cranky and thin.
Still, despite the book's schematic design (as reflected in the title and in Swede's wife's literally having been a Miss America contestant), its life and force derive from something messier and more subversive—the details. Roth has always had a great eye to go with his great ear, and an obvious passion for research, and they're on full display here. The tactile pleasures of a woman's glove, the behind-the-scenes insecurities that attach themselves to a beauty pageant, the renovations of an old stone house, the inquisition of a young gentile fiancée by her prospective Jewish father-in-law—all are rendered with such care and precision, such sheer authorial investment, that the effect is singularly powerful and contagious.
As is, finally, the inner turmoil of Swede Levov, as imagined by Nathan Zuckerman, as imagined by Philip Roth. Call it his own bleak version of Secrets and Lies. "What kind of mask is everyone wearing?" Swede wonders during the book's long, bravura third section (consisting entirely, like a Chekhov play, of a dull summer dinner party, and recalling the end of Roth's other frankly Chekhovian work, The Professor of Desire). "What was he, stripped of all the signs he flashed?"
No one can know anyone else, least of all themselves; they can only imagine, and even then they are doomed to fail. Systems will break down, personal or national, psychological or ideological. Whether you embrace order, like Swede Levov, or ruin, like Mickey Sabbath, in the end, Roth argues, it will come to the same thing. "He had thought most of it was order and only a little of it was disorder. He'd had it backwards … He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach: that it makes no sense."
That American Pastoral does make sense is a tribute to Roth's narrative energies. If age has failed to mellow him—his work retains its heat and thrust, its furious accumulations, its unruly obsessiveness—it does seem to have enriched his perspective. There is a feeling for human inadequacy that is more intimate and devastating than we have seen before, and perhaps more forgiving. It is no accident that this novel full of attempted answers ends with a question. A reminder that the true fall, always, is into knowledge. And it goes on and on.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3928
SOURCE: "The Irony and the Ecstasy," in New Yorker, Vol. LXXIII, No. 12, May 19, 1997, pp. 88, 90-4.
[In the following essay, Menand analyzes many of the themes in American Pastoral and compares it briefly to several other works by Roth.]
Philip Roth's new book is a historical novel about the period from the Second World War to Watergate. The hero is a high-school sports star and ex-marine who marries the Miss New Jersey of 1949, takes over his father's business, buys a big house in the country, and becomes a prosperous, liberal, post-ethnic mid-century American. He has what he thinks is the perfect life. What do you imagine happens to it? The novel is called American Pastoral, and no reader of Roth's fiction is likely to miss a guess about the way a story with a title like that is going to turn out. But what makes the book difficult and disturbing—what makes it great—is that although the outcome is foreclosed, the moral is not. This is a tour-hundred-page novel that ends with a question mark.
High-school athlete, successful businessman, and the postwar experience all suggest a comparison with John Updike's Rabbit novels. But the Rabbit books are not historical novels. They are chronicles. Rabbit is a device for boring through the dead center of four decades of American life. He is the kind of person who takes things as they come, so recording what happens to him is a way of recording what happened. His life is an accident of history, like everyone's life, but it's series of scrapes and fender benders, not a head-on collision.
Historical novels are about head-on collisions. They are about people who get blindsided by change, people who get caught between what's going and what's coming. There doesn't even have to be very much "history" in them. They are not obliged to make references to passing events and passing fashions, to bobby socks and astronauts and hula hoops. They don't chronicle history; they condense it. Roth's novel spans (as they say) four decades, but almost a third of it takes place during a rather aimless dinner party on a late-summer evening in 1973. The climax involves a drunken middle-aged woman stabbing a retired Jewish businessman in the face with a fork. It's the fall of Troy.
The man whose life becomes a wick for history's flame is one of two brothers in a Jewish family from the Weequahic section of Newark. This does not make him unusual. With a single exception, the principal character in every book that Philip Roth has written since 1979 is one of two brothers in a Jewish family from the Weequahic section of Newark. In four of those books (The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, and The Counterlife), the man is called Nathan Zuckerman. In one of them (Deception), he is called Philip. In one of them (Operation Shylock), he is called Philip Roth. In two of them (The Facts, an autobiography, and Patrimony, a memoir), he is Philip Roth. The single exception is Sabbath's Theater, the book published just before this one; its protagonist, Mickey Sabbath, is different from these other characters only in coming from a differently named New Jersey Jewish community.
This time his name is Seymour Levov, and what does make him unusual is that he is temperamentally pretty much everything Mickey Sabbath, Nathan Zuckerman, Philip, and (as far as one can tell) Philip Roth are not: slow to anger, non-judgmental, unself-absorbed, libidinally well-adjusted, and irony-free. His personality seems to move so frictionlessly within the world's groove, what he wants and does seems so congruent with social expectations about wanting and doing, that he might be mistaken for a conformist. But he is not a conformist; that's just the way he is formed.
The narrator of Seymour Levov's story is Nathan Zuckerman. This may not strike every reader as an added attraction. Zuckerman is, of course, the alter ego Roth invented for The Ghost Writer, and his presence (like the presence of the character named Philip Roth) usually signals an elaborate game of Find Philip. Zuckerman is the Roth who is not Roth. He is Roth impersonating himself and daring his readers to guess which part is the fact and which part is the act. The general idea seems to be that there is an absolute distinction (which is probably true) but that we will never get it right (which is also probably true, but which can become a little annoying). Most of the books after The Ghost Writer, and particularly The Counterlife, Deception, and Operation Shylock, are like tops that have "life" pasted on one side and "fiction" pasted on the other, and which the writer tries to get spinning fast enough to make us dizzy.
This does not seem the narrative strategy best suited to the story of Seymour Levov. But the Zuckerman who appears in the opening pages of American Pastoral is a changed Zuckerman. He has, he explains, undergone prostate surgery, and this has left him impotent, incontinent, and considerably mellowed. He is more reflective, less spiky, more sympathetic to the trials of lesser mortals—Zuckerman unwound. And his attitude toward the distinction between life and fiction has altered, too. He no longer, in telling the story of Seymour Levov, wants to make our heads spin. He now wants to get it right.
The reason he gives is a novelist's reason: he wants to see if he can imagine the inner life of someone who seems so radically unlike him. Seymour is an ontologically seamless specimen, a person blessed by some supernatural power with the gift of naturalness. "Where was the Jew in him?" Zuckerman wonders. "No striving, no ambivalence, no doubleness—just the style, the natural physical refinement of a star…. What did he do for subjectivity?" This is the sort of question, he says, that novelists write in order to answer.
There is another reason for Zuckerman's interest in Seymour Levov, though, and that is that Seymour is a figure plucked from Zuckerman's own imagination. It is not Seymour's apparent un-Jewishness that makes him fascinating. It's what Zuckerman calls "his unconscious oneness with America," He is a symbol of the belief that growing up Jewish in Newark was (as Roth himself puts it in The Facts) indistinguishable from growing up American. He represents the success of the American Jewish experiment, and if something has gone wrong with his life Zuckerman needs to understand why, because the belief that the American Jewish experiment is a success, the belief that someone like Seymour Levov could have whatever life he dreamed of having, is an essential element in Zuckerman's understanding of himself.
Seymour was live years ahead of Zuekerman at Weequahic High School, back in the nineteen-forties, when he had already acquired symbolic status. He was a star in three sports, a kind of neighborhood god, the cynosure of the community at a time when many of its sons had gone off to war. His successes on the playing field became transformed into communal experiences of ordeal and triumph. "Our entire neighborhood's wartime hope," Zuckerman says, "seemed to converge in the marvelous body of the Swede."
Seymour is called the Swede because he is tall and fair-haired and blue-eyed, but the name sticks because he is also cool and deferential and self-possessed. He seems to be the best Jewish son imaginable and at the same time to answer to the stereotype of an entirely different ethnic group. His father has built up a successful business, in downtown Newark, manufacturing ladies' gloves, and after serving in the Marines Seymour attends Upsala College, marries Dawn Dwyer, an Irish-American girl who has competed in the Miss America pageant, and turns down an offer to join a baseball Giants' farm team in order to learn the glove business. He buys his big house in a quaint little community named Old Rimrock out in the New Jersey countryside, his wife starts breeding beef cattle just for the honest hardworking fun of it, and they have a daughter named Merry.
That is more or less as much as Zuckerman knows until he runs into Seymour's younger brother, Jerry, at their forty-fifth high-school reunion and learns that Seymour has just died, and that much of his life was miserable because in 1968 sixteen-year-old Merry Levov, as an act of antiwar protest, had set off a bomb in the Old Rimrock post office, killing a local doctor, and had then gone underground. Seymour and Dawn eventually divorced, the house was sold, and the glove business was moved to Puerto Rico, unable to make it in the inner city in the aftermath of the Newark riots.
Zuckerman is startled by this news, because he had dinner with Seymour in New York only a couple of months earlier and had guessed none of it—not even that Seymour was dying. Seymour had projected the same stirring and exasperating image of at-homeness with himself and his life that Zuckerman remembered from high school. Zuckerman had never imagined that he was broken inside. Novelists are supposed to intuit these things; his professional pride is a little wounded. Stimulated by Jerry's revelations, and swooning a little under the influence of heavy reunion nostalgia, Zuckerman begins to imagine how it all happened—how the gods managed to preserve Seymour's perfect facade while reducing the inner core to ashes. What he imagines is the novel we read.
The style of American Pastoral is very different from the style of most of the books Roth has published since Portnoy's Complaint. It is closest to Patrimony and to the Roth section (as opposed to the Zuckerman section) of The Facts; that is, it is eloquent and evocative but very tightly controlled. In imagining Seymour's life, Zuckerman reimagines the whole lost world of Jewish Newark—the neighborhood, the families, the small businesses and factories. We learn a great deal about the history and process of glove manufacture. There is an extended account of Dawn's experiences at the Miss America pageant of 1949 which incorporates a re-creation of the old Atlantic City:
Together with the chaperones, they visited the Steel Pier and had a fish dinner at Captain Starn's famous seafood restaurant and yacht bar, and a steak dinner at Jack Guischard's Steak House, and the third morning they had their picture taken together in front of Convention Hall, where a pageant official told them the picture was one they would treasure for the rest of their lives … that the friendships they were making would last the rest of their lives, that when the time arrived they would name their children after one another—and meanwhile, when the papers came out in the morning, the girls said to their chaperones, "Oh God, I'm not in this. Oh God, this one looks like she's going to win."
The periods often swell in this way, and the prose sometimes allows itself to grow faintly elegiac; but the writing is always measured and always sober. This is not a funny book.
The reason has partly to do with the reflective wanness of the post-prostate Zuckerman, and partly with the circumstance that most of the characters the story has to deal with are not the usual Roth inventions. The usual Roth inventions are not wan or reflective types. They are people who have no problem with the way they are—not the slightest problem in the world, except for maybe one little problem, one tiny thing that might be bugging them, which is the possibility that you might be having a problem with the way they are, in which case they are happy to explain at whatever length might be necessary why it is, given the way the universe happens to be constructed, that you are wrong. They are characters who are capable, at the slightest provocation, of launching into voluminous comic monologues of self-justification, enormous speeches that rise to astonishing imaginative heights on the hot air of their own righteousness: Characters like Mickey Sabbath, in Sabbath's Theater, Moishe Pipik (the fake Philip Roth), in Operation Shylock, Nathan Zuckerman, in The Counterlife and The Anatomy Lesson, Alvin Pepler, in Zuckerman Unbound, all the way back to the father of them all, the divinely inspired Alexander Portnoy. It is an emotion Roth loves, this emotion of being completely in the right and fired by the need to straighten out every dimwit who persists in getting it wrong; and he is always searching for an excuse to impersonate someone in its throes.
There are only two sustained moments like this in American Pastoral. They both come on the novel's climactic day, in the late summer of 1973, which is the day Seymour discovers Merry, five years after she has gone underground, living by herself in a hellhole in downtown Newark. After the Old Rimrock bombing, Seymour learns, his daughter has set off several more bombs, killing three more people. Now she is a fanatical Jain, wearing a cutoff stocking over her mouth to avoid harming airborne microorganisms, never washing herself, scarcely eating. She is rational, articulate, self-possessed, and a complete lunatic. Her smell is so foul that when Seymour gets close to her he vomits. But she refuses to come home with him, and he cannot bring himself to force her.
Miserable and terrified. Seymour calls his brother Jerry, now a big-shot cardiac surgeon in Miami, and Jerry's crushing diatribe against Seymour's pusillanimity is the first of the true Rothian monologues in this book. He finally has the chance to explain why his hero older brother has got everything completely wrong:
You wanted Miss America? Well, you've got her, with a vengeance—she's your daughter! You wanted to he a real American jock, a real American marine, a real American hotshot with a beautiful Gentile babe on your arm? You longed to belong like everybody else to the United States of America? Well, you do now, big boy, thanks to your daughter. The reality of this place is right up in your kisser now. With the help of your daughter you're as deep in the shit as a man can get, the real American crazy shit. America amok! America amuck!
And he's only getting warmed up.
The other familiar monologue comes later that day, at the dinner party, during which Seymour learns of the additional perfidies of his wife, his neighbors, and his friends, while his father—old Lou Levov, the retired glove manufacturer—amuses the bland and unshockable gentry with an extended rant about Richard Nixon, the blacks, and "Deep Throat." "You'd be surprised," one of the guests patiently explains to this old relic of rectitude during a discussion of whether kids should be allowed to see "Deep Throat," "how much the kids today have learned to take in their stride." Lou replies, "But degrading things should not be taken in their stride! I say lock them in their rooms if they take this in their stride! I remember when kids used to be at home doing their homework and not out seeing movies like this. This is the morality of a country that we're talking about. Well, isn't it? Am I nuts? It is an affront to decency and to decent people." He's just getting started, too. These are brilliant splenetic irruptions, injections of raw vitality into a novel otherwise modulated, sympathetic, and restrained—a novel otherwise designed to mimic the personality of its protagonist.
So what did go wrong in the life of Seymour Levov? Different readers will arrive at different conclusions. It's a complex book, and the variety of possible readings is one of the reasons it is so effective. Still, it's so different in tone from most of Roth's other books that it is sometimes a little hard to know how to decode it, a little hard to know where the irony lies and in which direction it points. Faintly elegiac re-creations of Miss America pageants are not among Roth's customary forms of literary exercise. And a writer who once created a character based on himself for the purpose of lecturing readers on the fallacy of confusing characters with their authors is not, after all, a writer to be trusted too quickly.
You can find yourself, while reading American Pastoral, starting to wonder whether the book might not be in fact just a pastiche of Updike, with those meticulous descriptions of glovemaking and cattle-breeding, the quaint village post office and general store, the suburban dinner parties, and the flora and the fauna and the endless Americana. At other moments, you can begin to suspect that the novel must be ironic all the way through—that Seymour Levov, with the prize cattle and the beauty-queen wife and the house made of stones from a Revolutionary War campsite, is an absurdity from the start, a bubble of assimilationist fantasy bound to burst, and that Zuckerman has plunged headlong into this nonsense but Roth has not. The high point of Roth's last novel, Sabbath's Theater, was the hilarious desecration of the apartment of Sabbath's old friend and business associate, a successful theatrical producer whose well-ordered existence of civility and good taste the libidinal whirlwind of Mickey Sabbath lays waste to in a little over twenty-four hours. Mickey Sabbath would not have needed even a day with the Levovs.
By the middle of the great dinner-party scene, though, these suspicions have faded away, for you feel that Roth is finally getting down to what is eating him. The guests at the party, apart from the senior Levovs, are affluent professionals, social and generational peers of Seymour and his wife—an architect, an academic couple, a therapist, a family physician. They arc antiwar liberals, environmentalists, people tolerant of dissent, of pornography—of everything, really, because they are so snug inside the cocoon of post-scarcity, post-ethnic, postwar upper-middle-class American life. They are right-thinking, cultured, and successful, and they are morally spineless. The exposure of their inner decay is relentless, but Roth overplays nothing. It is a withering scene.
American Pastoral can be read as generically advertised—that is, as a story of Arcadian bliss into which the serpent inexorably creeps. It can be read as an American Book of Job, a story of undeserved suffering and the fickleness of fate. It can be read as political allegory—a story of how the spirit born out of the victory over Fascism was destroyed by Vietnam and Watergate. But at bottom it seems to be a book about the same thing that almost all of Roth's books are about: the life—the aspirations, the pride, the accomplishment—of the vanished world of Weequahic, the Jewish Atlantis. The recollection of that buried life was the heart of Sabbath's Theater; it was the heart of Patrimony, too—Roth's memorial to his father. With a few exceptions, this is the world Roth has been writing about all his life. "Narrative is the form that his knowledge takes," Roth says of his father in The Facts, "and his repertoire has never been large: family, family, family, Newark, Newark, Newark, Jew, Jew, Jew. Somewhat like mine."
This is the life that Seymour Levov thinks he is not breaking with but extending when he steps out of the ethnic enclave and into what he imagines to be full-fledged Americanness. He thinks he can preserve the old values of work, family, and fair play but discard the atavistic compulsions of mindless discipline, authority, and tradition. What he is blindsided by is the culture of permissiveness. Seymour's genuine tolerance and sympathy are surrounded and subverted on all sides by the fake tolerance and sympathy of therapy, analysis, and liberationism—things as phony as the "Old" in "Old Rimrock." His patience, deference, and open-mindedness, his insistence on reasoning things out and splitting the cultural differences, have produced in Merry Levov a fanatic and a killer—"a pariah exiled in the very country where her family had triumphantly rooted itself in every possible way," as Zuckerman puts it. Seymour thought that liberalism was a form of authority, and he is made to see it as a mask for the loathing of authority. He thought that Americanness was an identity, and he is made to see it as a mask for contempt for the identities of other people. But he can't go back, because the little world he came from has been closed down, vandalized, destroyed. All the little worlds of prewar America are closed down. He is in exodus from the diaspora.
The idea that the author of Portnoy's Complaint—a real-life bombshell that exploded in February of 1969, a year after Merry Levov's fictional bombshell—has written a book about the corruption of American life by the culture of liberal permissiveness is likely to make some readers wonder whether American Pastoral is a kind of recantation, a swerve to the cultural right. Weren't moral authoritarianism, the obsession with little-world ethnic identity, and the suffocation of family life the very oppressions Alexander Portnoy was fleeing? Isn't a novel about a man who beats off using a piece of liver his mother will shortly prepare for the family dinner about as permissive as it gets?
Portnoy's Complaint was a misunderstood book. When it appeared, it was attacked for lampooning its Jewish characters, but it was also attacked, and by some formidably intelligent critics, as a simplistic manifesto of sexual liberation. Its author was accused by Diana Trilling of being a "child of an indiscriminative mass culture," and its protagonist was described by Irving Howe as "a man at ease with his moment"—at ease, that is, with the insufficiently tragic culture of swinging post-Freudian sexuality. But Portnoy is not at ease with anything. He is made just as crazy by the sexual freedom he has found as he was by the sexual repressive-ness he fled. He escapes from the clutches of his mother only to drop into the clutches of the Monkey. Roth didn't think that Portnoy represented liberation. He thought that representing Portnoy represented liberation—liberation from what he regarded as the idless stereotypes of Jewish characters in contemporary fiction, and from middlebrow notions of stylistic decorum. Roth didn't think he was escaping from Newark. He thought he was escaping from Leon Uris.
The heart of Portnoy is the same as the heart of Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral. It is the descriptions of the baseball games and the neighborhood life of Weequahic, the memories of what that world was like before the twin demons of enlightenment and lust made it unendurable. Portnoy's complaint is the same as Seymour Levov's. He is a prisoner of his own liberation. He stepped out, and now he is lost in America.
Has Roth turned to the cultural right? If being on the cultural right means having an old-fashioned modernist commitment to high art, Roth has always been on the cultural right. If it means being a critic of the culture of liberalism, the question is the wrong question. A modernist commitment to high art means that you are, by definition, a critic of the culture of everything. American Pastoral is a very different kind of book from Portnoy's Complaint, of course. American Pastoral is a traditional realist novel, and Portnoy is a sixties performance piece. But they are both about the same irony and the same agony. One makes a comedy of authority, the other makes a tragedy of the escape from authority. The difference is a little like the difference between Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, or between Pickwick Papers and Our Mutual Friend. American Pastoral is darker, difficult, more mature; but Portnoy is forever.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1183
SOURCE: "Terrorism, the Perfect Choice," in The Spectator, Vol. 278, No. 8809, May 31, 1997, pp. 36-7.
[In the following review Hensher analyzes Roth's depictions of terrorism and the theme of betrayal in the novel American Pastoral.]
It is surprising, in a way, that more novelists haven't taken to the subject of terrorism. Few people are killed by terrorists; fewer feel sufficient attachment to any cause to take up violence. But the rise of nationalist groups in Western societies and of tiny cells devoted to some abstract political cause has changed the way many of us live our lives. The Red Army Faction in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Weathermen in America had an influence on the shape of society, on how society feels about itself, quite out of proportion to their aims and the size of their operation.
But few novelists have really tried to understand the commitment of terrorists. The classics of terrorism and anarchism—The Possessed, The Secret Agent, The Princess Casamassima and The Man Who was Thursday—perhaps weigh too heavily on novelists now. Certainly even the best novels about post-war terrorists—a fine one by Doris Lessing, or there is Walter Abish's dry, sinister How German Is It?—tend towards an ironic demureness, shying away from the stupendous blaze of Dostoevsky or Conrad. The Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia might have done it, with his limitlessly subtle mind and incomparable understanding of the political will; writing about the Red Brigades' murder of Aldo Moro, however, he turned away from fiction to produce the grandest of his polemics, The Moro Affair.
If anyone is going to take on terrorism as a subject and really understand it, it would be Philip Roth. His subject, to the exclusion of almost anything else, is betrayal, his characteristic tone a rage-filled disappointment. I've found his last books to be simultaneously brilliantly virtuosic and profoundly unpleasant; extremely readable, but provoking absolutely no desire to look at them or think about them ever again. His last book, Sabbath's Theater, was largely about the persistence of the basest form of lust after the death of the hero's mistress; its most memorable scene, in which the hero masturbates over his mistress's grave, is, like the whole glittering, repellent book, something I never wish to have to read again. Squeamishness of a different sort set in with his previous novel, Operation Shylock. It is a book of undeniable literary quality and a really quite astonishing accomplishment; it uses the whole post-modern contraption of unreliable narrators and an atmosphere of violent paranoia to dictate an insane political argument to the unwilling reader. I thought it not just lacking in every degree of respect for the reader, but an immoral and cynical misuse of fiction. But Roth's novels, however disagreeable they are, must be read; he is a novelist of almost incredible technical accomplishment.
American Pastoral is as technically skilled as anything Roth has written, but with a grander, less hectoring feel to it. Like many of his books, it examines love, and the rejection of love; in taking on a terrorist who rejects the love of her family, and the love of the country which nurtured her, he has found an ideal, satisfying subject for his recurrent obsession. Swede Levov is a perfect American; the heir to a paternalistic, caring glove-manufacturing empire, he is a war hero, a sports hero, a handsome embodiment of mid-century America. Naturally, he falls in love with and marries a nice Irish Catholic girl, Miss New Jersey 1949; their life is an innocent dream of rich suburban bliss, with the smiling black workers in the glove factory, and holidays at Avon—'the Irish Riviera'. And then they have a child.
The girl, Merry's, only problem until adolescence is a stutter, but that, perhaps, is enough. A sense of inadequacy, of having to prove herself, seems to shade, as she gets older, into a sense of a need for a cause. The ordinary 1960s high-school distaste for the Vietnam war, in her, goes further into action; she starts to disappear to New York overnight, to mysterious friends. Finally, at 16, she blows up the local post office, killing a man, and disappears without a trace into 'the angry ragtag army of the violent Uncorrupted'. She has betrayed America, and yet, because the core of America is betrayal, she has become America. 'You wanted Miss America? Well, you've got her with a vengeance—she's your daughter!' Swede's motto has always been, 'One hand washed the other'; now, watching their daughter betray them, watching his workers turn against him, it is as if one hand has turned against the other.
The beauty of the book is in its solidity of detail. It is harder than it looks to get details exactly right; Roth is someone who can effortlessly summon inert details and make an imagined life real. The perfection of his technique, in some ways, is in lines like this:
In New York there are a series of explosions—at the United Fruit Line pier, at the Marine Midland Bank, at Manufacturers Trust, at General Motors, at the Manhattan headquarters of Mobil Oil, IBM and General Telephone and Electronics.
Neither exaggeratedly telling, nor completely unremarkable, this is the sort of detail which works, unnoticed, at constructing the reader's absolute belief in this strange world.
Best of all, I think, are the uses to which Roth puts the gloves which Levov's factory makes. The glove is a suggestive sort of idea; it calls up a whole raft of associations, almost all of which arc used somewhere in the novel. The glove is a symbol of gentility which disappeared some time in the 1960s; it also suggests the hypocrisy of the iron fist in the velvet glove which Merry sees in her father, and, ironically enough, the measures the criminal takes to disguise his or her fingerprints. But the glove is never merely symbolic; the decline of glove-wearing and the decline of Levov's factory are much more than just a poetic symmetry. The details of the construction of the glove arc described in awe-inspiring intricacy. As in all Roth's work, one is convinced by his commitment to arcane truths, to accuracy, by the fact that he not only cares for abstract ideas and an argument, but also respects the physical world, the trivial trappings of his characters' lives. And the reader almost begins to care with him.
It is a study of adequate goodness, of a man who is merely 'the best you're going to get in this country'. At the end, the highest praise the narrator can bestow is this; 'What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?' The less reprehensible becomes the only thing to aim at, in Roth's downbeat, unhappy America; not to kill people; not to harm people; to accept blows and condemnation and rejection calmly, and with endurance. It is not a comforting book, and, like all of Roth's books, it is not a novel that one would return to willingly. It is admirable, oppressive and moving; perhaps that ought to be enough.
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SOURCE: "The End of Innocence," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 27, No. 23, June 8, 1997, pp. 1. 14.
[In the following review Rifkind asserts that Roth is at his best in American Pastoral. She praises the epic qualities of the book, the depth of characterizations, and the social commentary and critique that make the novel "… possibly the finest work of his career."]
What better place to contemplate the mysteries of identity than a 45th high school reunion? That's where Nathan Zuckerman, humbled by impotence and incontinence after prostate cancer surgery, finds himself at the beginning of Philip Roth's 22nd book, American Pastoral. This is a more subdued Zuckerman than in previous novels, shadowed and tugged at by death, as was the hero of Sabbath's Theater (1995) and the narrator Roth in Patrimony, his 1992 memoir of his father's final illness.
Yet most of Zuckerman's old energy remains. Milling among his former classmates, Weequahic High School's class of 1950, he sets about assessing lime's mutilation of the teenagers he once knew, observing erstwhile jitterbuggers now shuffling with canes, and a chubby-cheeked girl he groped on hayrides whose face is now "deeply scored as if with an engraving stylus." It's here that Zuckerman runs into a boyhood pal, Jerry, a guy who once tried to impress a girl by making her a coat out of hundreds of hamster skins. Shocked by the news that Jerry's brother has just died, Zuckerman retreats into his imagination. Quoting an old Johnny Mercer song ("Dream when the day is thru"), he dreams "a realistic chronicle" about Jerry's brother the former Newark, N.J., sports hero Seymour Levov—nicknamed the Swede because of his Nordic good looks—and Zuckerman disappears to let the Swede's story take over.
Before he goes, though, Zuckerman takes pains to describe just what the Swede, "the household Apollo of the Weequahic Jews," had once meant to him. He barely knew him, but to Zuckerman he was the enviable recipient of all the promises that postwar America made to the Jews of Newark. The Swede's father got rich manufacturing ladies' gloves; after a legendary high school sports career and a stint in the Marines, the Swede took over the business and made it even more profitable. He married his Irish college sweetheart, a former Miss New Jersey, moved to an old stone manor in the western Jersey suburbs, had a daughter named Merry whom he adored. The world, for the triumphantly assimilated Swede Levov, was his raw bar.
Or was it? "You get them wrong," Zuckerman says about "this terribly significant business of other people"; "you get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again." It turns out that the Swede, this complacent golden boy "in love with his own good luck," is in fact a broken man, broken by the adolescent transformation, during the 1960s, of his beloved little daughter Merry into a fat, vengeful Fury who stuttered obscenities at her parents for being troglodytic capitalists, raged endlessly against the Vietnam war—and finally bombed the local post office, killing a doctor who was there to mail his household bills.
Merry goes on to live as a fugitive and a Jain, crazily committing herself to a life of squalor in the junky ruins of a Newark left smoldering and hopeless after its decimating riols, squatting in a hovel not far from the Swede's glovemaking factory. Her actions have sent her mother to a psychiatric hospital and her father to an even deeper, untreatable despair; she's transported 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."
Using this dialectic between the pastoral and counterpastoral American dream and American tragedy. Roth takes the story of the cheerfully hardworking, reasonable Swede and his frenzied Dionysian daughter into a broader social context, using his characters to represent three generations of American history which, with his Millonian section headings, he calls the "Paradise Remembered" of the postwar period, "The Fall" of the ravaging 1960s, and the "Paradise Lost" of that decade's painful aftermath. The novel has the spaciousness and weight of an epic, a staggeringly successful one that manages to incorporate the day-to-day activities of glovemaking factories, the Miss America pageant, the raising of beef cattle and the radical revolutionary mind.
But Roth's greater triumph here, in what is possibly the finest work of his career, is the thoroughness and intensity with which he plumbs the souls of his characters. One senses he's not so much writing about them as feeling them, probing every inch of their pain. And yet despite the compassion in his characterizations—even the despicable Merry is a lost, pitiful child—Roth's theme about the fundamental mysteriousness of people is achingly clear. "This was his daughter, and she was unknowable," thinks the Swede wonderingly. "This murderer is mine."
"The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway," Zuckerman muses. "It's getting them wrong that is living … That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong." It's breathtaking to witness an author at the height of his very considerable powers writing, as Roth docs here, with so much humility and generosity and sorrow.
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SOURCE: "Paradise Lost," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIV, No. 10, June 12, 1997, pp. 12-14.
[In the following review Hardwick briefly compares American Pastoral to several other works by Roth: Operation Shylock. The Anatomy Lesson, Portnoy's Complaint, and The Professor of Desire. She examinines the evolution of the character Nathan Zuckerman through the course of these novels.]
American Pastoral is Philip Roth's twentieth work of fiction—an accretion of creative energy, a yearly, or almost, place at the starting line of a marathon. But his is a one-man sprint with the signatures, the gestures, the deep breathing, and the repetitiveness, sometimes, of an obsessive talent. Roth has his themes, spurs to his virtuoso variations and star turns in triple time. His themes are Jews in the world, especially in Israel, Jews in the family, Jews in Newark (New Jersey); fame, vivid enough to occasion impostors (Operation Shylack); literature, since the narrators, or, if you like, the performers are writers, actually one writer, Philip Roth, winking under whatever dark-glasses alias. And sex, anywhere in every manner, a penitential workout on the page with no thought of backaches, chafings, or phallic fatigue. Indeed the novels are prickled like a sea urchin with the spines and fuzz of many indecencies.
In American Pastoral we are, on the first page, once more in Newark; and on page sixteen a question is posed to which the answer is, yes, "I'm Zuckerman the author." Nathan Zuckerman is the author of Carnovsky (Zuckerman Unbound), an alternative title like those sometimes used in foreign translations. In English, the novel is, of course, Portnoy's Complaint, which provoked among many other responses an eruption of scandal; and the author of the book that brought about a fame and a "recognition factor" equal to that of Mick Jagger is Philip Roth. Or so it is in Zuckerman Unbound, where even a young funeral director, attending the remains of a Prince Seratelli, pauses to ask for the author's autograph—all part of this wild, very engaging minstrel show in which the writing of a book, Portnoy or "Carnovsky," not just any book, may serve as the lively plot for a subsequent book. Of course, we cannot attach Zuckerman or David Kepesh or Peter Tarnopol or Alexander Portnoy to Philip Roth like a fingernail. Not always.
However, if he follows Zuckerman to The Anatomy Lesson, the reader will gain or lose a shiver of interest if he knows that the late critic Irving Howe published in the magazine Commentary some forthright reservations about Roth's work and that Howe is the "source" of Milton Appel in a rebuttal by Zuckerman or Roth. Howe had written, among other thoughts, some favorable, that "What seems really to be bothering Portnoy is a wish to sever his sexuality from his moral sensibilities, to cut it away from his self as historical creature. It's as if he really supposed the super-ego, or post coitum triste, were a Jewish invention."
Zuckerman or Roth cries out some years later in The Anatomy Lesson: "Milton Appel had unleashed an attack upon Zuckerman's career that made Macduff's assault upon Macbeth look almost lackadaisical. Zuckerman should have been so lucky as to come away with decapitation. A head wasn't enough for Appel; he tore you limb from limb." If he is indeed torn limb from limb, this ferocious paraplegic author pursues Appel/Howe in a motorized wheelchair for almost forty pages.
The structure of Roth's fiction is based often upon identifying tirades rather than actions and counter-actions, tirades of perfervid brilliance, and this is what he can do standing on his head or hanging out the window if need be. The tirades are not to be thought of as mere angry outbursts in the kitchen after a beer or two, although they are usually angry enough since most of the characters are soreheads of outstanding volubility. The monologues are a presentation of self, often as if on the stage of some grungy Comédie Française, if such an illicit stretch may be allowed. Here is Monkey, the trailerpark Phèdre of Portnoy's Complaint, in a cameo appearance:
picking on me all the time—in just the way you look at me you pick on me, Alex! I open the door at night, I'm so dying to see you, thinking all day long about nothing but you, and there are those fucking orbs already picking out every single thing that's wrong with me! As if I'm not insecure enough, as if insecurity isn't my whole hang-up, you get that expression all over your face the minute I open my mouth … oh. shit, here comes another dumb and stupid remark out of that brainless twat…. Well, I'm not brainless, and I'm not a twat either, just because I didn't go to lucking Harvard! And don't give me any more of your shit about behaving in front of The Lindsays.
Just who the fuck are The Lindsays? A God damn mayor, and his wife! A lucking mayor! In case you forget, I was married to one of the richest men in France when I was still eighteen years old—I was a guest at Aly Khan's for dinner, when you were still back in Newark, New Jersey, finger-fucking your little Jewish girl friends!
There you have Monkey and her expressive grievance.
For tirades and diatribes of a more demanding content, nothing Roth has written equals the bizarre explosions of Operation Shylock, a rich, original work composed with an unforgiving complexity if one is trying to unravel the design. It is about the double, the impersonator, the true self, one's own estimation, and the false self known to the public, the latter brilliantly examined in an account of the trial in Jerusalem of Ivan the Terrible, the allegedly murderous Ukrainian at Treblinka, who is also Demjanjuk, "good old Johnny, the gardener from Cleveland. Ohio." And standing at not too great a distance from the actual ground of the novel we are reminded of the bad Philip Roth, creator for laughs of American Jewish life in its underwear; and, on the other hand. Philip Roth, artist, observer, inspired comedian of the letter J—"the litanist of the fleas, the knave, the thane, the ribboned stick, the bellowing breeches"—comedian of the folkloric Portnoys and others of their kind.
Operation Shylock: Philip Roth in New York, recovering from depression and suicidal impulses brought on by the drug Halcion. (The doubling mystery of pharmaceutical messages—may cause insomnia or drowsiness. Remember President George Bush, reportedly on the drug, ever windblown and smiling as he relentlessly raced up and down in his "cigarette" boat on the waters outside the summer White House in Kennebunkport, Maine.) Roth, from Halcion, down as a bottom-dwelling flatfish, is planning to go to Israel to interview the novelist Aharon Appelfeld. He learns, as if he had already departed and landed, that someone is giving interviews and lectures under his name, speaking on the radio and announcing an appearance in the King David Hotel on the subject: "Diasporism: The Only Solution to the Jewish Problem. A lecture by Philip Roth." The double, the impostor, given the fairy-tale name of Pipik, is one of the disputatious inhabitants of the mind of the actual Roth who creates at interesting length the faux, but not altogether faux, debate on the present position of Israel in the world.
Diasporism: "The time has come to return to the Europe that was for centuries, and remains to this day, the most authentic Jewish homeland there has ever been, the birthplace of rabbinic Judaism, Hasidic Judaism, Jewish secularism, socialism—on and on. The time has come to renew in the European Diaspora our pre-eminent spiritual and cultural role." In questions and counter-arguments between the true and the false Philip Roth, the horror of the Holocaust is remembered but is now claimed to be a "bulwark against European anti-Semitism." The mad Pipik is arguing in effect: Europe's had that, it's over. "No such bulwark exists in Islam. Exterminating a Jewish nation would cause Islam to lose not a single night's sleep, except for the great night of celebration. I think you would agree that a Jew is safer today walking aimlessly around Berlin than going unarmed into the streets of Ramallah."
Pipik has not only, in the name of Roth, proposed his program of Diasporism, he has also organized A.S.A., Anti-Semites Anonymous, which leads to the appearance in the plot of a nurse who is valiantly and with commendable self-discipline in "recovery," she having taken the twelve steps. In this Israel, "The pasturalization of the ghetto," prophets and pundits roam the streets, all the while giving off the noise and fumes of opinion. Here, Philip Roth encounters an acquaintance from the past, a Harvard-educated Egyptian enrolled at Roth's time as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and now a famous professor. His name is George Ziad (sic). Zee, as he is called, is also a Diasporist, but for his own reason. His program is to get the Jews out of Israel and thereby return the land to his ancestors, the Palestinians.
Believing that the old Philip Roth of his acquaintance has been transmogrified into the passionate Diasporist of Pipik's caper, Zee holds forth with feeling about the sufferings of the Palestinians and the inferiority and provincialism of Israeli culture by comparison with that of the Jews in their true homeland, Manhattan. "There is more Jewish spirit and Jewish laughter and Jewish intelligence on the Upper West Side of Manhattan than in this entire country…. There's more Jewish heart at the knish counter at Zabar's than in the whole of the Knesset!"
Then the true Philip Roth, taking on the garments of the impostor, Pipik, performs in his fluent rhythms about the greatest Diasporist of all, Irving Berlin.
The radio was playing "Easter Parade" and I thought, But this is Jewish genius on a par with the Ten Commandments. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave to Irving Berlin "Easter Parade" and "White Christmas."… Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow. Gone is the gore and the murder of Christ—down with the crucifix and up with the bonnet!… If supplanting Jesus Christ with snow can enable my people to cozy up to Christmas, then let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!
So goes this curious, hilarious work of profligate imagination unbound.
Along the way it dashes into subplots of many befuddlements and allocations of adventures offered with the pedantic assurance of a mock court indictment. It is suggested, or more or less sworn to, that Philip Roth, the living author, acted as an agent for Mosad, the CIA of Israel, by spying upon "Jewish anti-Zionist elements threatening the security of Israel." Serving counterintelligence by impersonating the impersonator? The novel is subtitled: A Confession. The preface claims that "The book is as accurate an account as I am able to give of actual occurrences that I lived through during my middle fifties and that culminated, early in 1988, in my agreeing to undertake an intelligence-gathering operation for Israel's foreign intelligence service, the Mossad."
A solemn affidavit? Not quite. A note to the reader at the end of the book: "This confession is false." An operatic divertissement? Aida, the Ethiopian princess stealing war plans from her Egyptian lover for the benefit of her country. Or the false Dimitri and at last old Boris Godunov, Philip Roth, saving the state from the Diasporists and in a cloud of redemption expiring.
The talent of Philip Roth floats freely in this rampaging novel with a plot thick as starlings winging to a tree and then flying off again. It is meant perhaps as a sort of restitution offered in payment of the claim that if the author has not betrayed the Jews he has too often found them to be whacking clowns, or whacking-off clowns. He bleeds like the old progenitor he has named in the title. Since he is, as a contemporary writer, always quick to insert the latest item of the news into his running comments, perhaps we can imagine him as poor Richard Jewell, falsely accused in the bombing in Atlanta because, in police language, he fit the profile; and then at last found to be just himself, a nice fellow good to his mother.
And yet, and yet, the impostor, the devil's advocate for the Diaspora has, with dazzling invention, composed not an ode for the hardy settlers of Israel, but an ode to the wandering Jew as a beggar and prince in Western culture, speaking and writing in all its languages.
After fame and mischief on the streets of Jerusalem, Roth, in a sort of recidivism, returns to the passions of his youth with a "hero," Mickey Sabbath, certainly not in his first youth, but shall we say, still trying. Sabbath's Theater, a much admired book, is seriously filthy. Portnoy's Complaint, by comparison and to put the best face on it, is lads and lassies a-Maying. Sabbath's Theater is mud, a slough of obscenity with some lustrous pearls of antic writing embedded in it. The first line: "Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over." That is Drenka, a fifty-two-year-old Croatian voluptuary with ovarian cancer of which she dies, but not before thirteen years of insatiable carnality with Sabbath and more years than that with others.
Sabbath, now sixty-four, refuses to forswear, saying it would be repugnant to him to break the "sacrament of infidelity." And that is, perhaps, why he is given the name of Sabbath, the day of worship, to suggest a sort of Black Mass of fucking. The world is out to crucify the master puppeteer of his Indecent Theater, but the aging, arthritic, disheveled lover is irresistible to all except his wife Roseanna, who spends her days in an alcoholic stupor and when at last belligerently sober, by way of AA, takes off with a lesbian and often turns her thoughts to the penis clipper, well-named Lorena Bobbin.
Among the breathlessly accommodating are a Barnard girl; Christa, a runaway German au pair; and Rosa, a Spanish-speaking maid, "four childs," another in her belly; and a student in a liberal arts college from which Sabbath is fired as an adjunct professor of puppet theater, owing to the discovery of a taped telephone conversation of outstanding lascivity, published in full at the bottom of the pages, a priapic academic footnote. This leads to an apologia, attributed to Sabbath, which can be attributed to the author, Philip Roth.
Not even Sabbath understood how he could lose his job at a liberal arts college for teaching a twenty-year-old to talk dirty twenty-five years after Pauline Réage, fifty-five years after Henry Miller, sixty years after D. H. Lawrence, eighty years after James Joyce, two hundred years after John Cleland, three hundred years after John Wilmot, second earl of Rochester—not to mention four hundred after Rabelais, two thousand after Ovid, and twenty-two hundred after Aristophanes.
To the challenge of white satin, spring flower epithalamia, the "realist" offers the rude, raging insistence of Nature. In Roth's novels, the erotic pushes and thrusts where it will, even in imagination to the iconic Anne Frank and Franz Kafka. In The Ghost Writer, a young female student, refugee from Europe at the time of the Holocaust, turns up as an assistant to the esteemed writer Lonoff, living in Massachusetts, the snowscape Yankeeland. Zuckerman, young and only on the first arc of the happy curve of his talent, enters the shrine of literature as a guest in Lonoff's house. He soon imagines the attractive assistant to be a living Anne Frank, rescued from death only to he sent in the still of the night to the bed of Lonoff, or he to her bed.
In The Professor of Desire, David Kepesh this time, rather than Nathan Zuckerman, goes on a journey to Prague, the holy city of the painfully reserved, tubercular genius, Franz Kafka. In a dream, a jeu d'esprit, Kepesh is taken to see "Kafka's whore," a hideous old fraudulent tourist attraction, and a foul scene follows.
Sabbath's journey into the underworld is sex and death, the classical Manichean union. He is haunted by his mother, who was haunted by the death of his brother, Morty, shot down in the Philippines in World War II. Sabbath, at the end of his tether, or so you might put it, masturbates and pisses on the grave of the exuberant Drenka of the "uberous breasts." He is found there by her son, a cop, whose outrage is so great he will not arrest or shoot him to death, as Sabbath wishes. Let him lie in the muck. "You desecrate my mother's grave. You desecrate the American flag. You desecrate your own people. With your stupid fucking prick out, wearing the skullcap of your own religion!" So Sabbath is doomed to life. "He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here."
Here in Drenka's cemetery, in America, in the spurious romanticism of lovemaking, marriage, fidelity? Sabbath and his theater of indecent puppets like Drenka, Christa, and so on are not a happy band of buskers. There is illness, prostate affliction, ovarian cancer, madness, drunkenness, the scars of his brother's death and his mother's annihilating grief. Perhaps he is saying he cannot bring himself to suicide because of the life-giving force of hatred. An idea indeed. But it is not always useful to seek abstractions in fiction. When you turn to the last pages of Sabbath's Theater not much is clear beyond the anarchic brilliance of the swarm of characters, the rush of language, the willful chaos of the inspiration.
American Pastoral: Paradise Remembered; The Fall; Paradise Lost in New Jersey, Philip Roth's singular turf, Newark "before the negroes," its raucous, fetid airs memorialized by his art as if they were the zephyrs in a sportsman's sketches. Zuckerman is called to tell the story of the fate of Seymour Levov, a supreme high school athlete, called "the Swede." His is a life that began in gladness and came to an end in a conflagration of appalling desolation. The Levov family, the marriages, the children, the business, the houses are the landscape of toil and success, an ever-upward curve horribly deflected by the America of the 1960s. The elder Levov has through his unceasing labor and shrewdness, his toughness, built a business in the manufacture of ladies gloves, the firm going by the name of Newark Maid Leatherware.
Newark Maid at the time of the novel's action has moved to Puerto Rico, but the roots of the family go back to the old Levov grandfather who had arrived in America in the 1890s and "found work fleshing sheepskins fresh from the lime vat." The slow, punishing development of Newark Maid by Lou Levov, the father of Swede and his brother Jerry, is the ancestral cord of blood and sweat that will be broken in subtle ways by the agreeable son, Swede, and in violent ways by the bomb-throwing murders of Swede's daughter, Merry, a child of the 1960s.
The elder Levov was "one of those slum-reared Jewish fathers whose roughhewn; undereducated perspective goaded a whole generation of striving, college-educated Jewish sons." Lou Levov went to work at the tannery at fourteen; "the tannery that stank of both the slaughterhouse and the chemical plant from the soaking of flesh and the cooking of flesh and the dehairing and pickling and degreasing of hides." At the workhouse, "the temperature [rises] to a hundred and twenty degrees … with hunks of skin all over the floor, everywhere pits of grease, hills of salt, barrels of solvent—this was Lou Levov's high school and college." The labor, powerfully imagined and researched here, brings to mind the Lower East Side tenements and the brutal hours at the sewing machines that led in time to the garment district on Seventh Avenue.
On the domestic scene the increasing prosperity of Newark Maid gloves sends the Levov family from the streets of the lower- and middle-class Jews to "Keer Avenue … where the rich Jews lived." They become Keer Avenue Jews, "with their finished basements, their screened-in porches, their flagstone front steps,… laying claim like audacious pioneers to the normalizing American amenities." Swede, the athletic, tall, blond Levov, "as close to a goy as we were going to get," survives the Marine Corps, plays baseball at Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey, turns down a club contract offer, and joins his father's business. And in a sort of sleepwalking way, out of natural inclination, he crossed a line or what would seem to be a line to the old inbred Levovs: he married Miss New Jersey. "Before competing at Atlantic City for the 1949 Miss America title, she had been Miss Union County, and before that Spring Queen at Upsala…. A shiksa. Dawn Dwyer. He'd done it."
As the novel opens, the Swede is almost seventy, and he has sent a letter to the author, Zuckerman, asking for a dinner meeting. The old Levov had died at age ninety-six, and the son is struggling to write a memoir about him to be distributed to family and friends. He wants to discuss his father with Zuckerman, the famous author, and a friend from high school days. In the note he says about his father that he suffered "because of the shocks that befell his loved ones." The shock which indeed caused the old man to keel over dead was the discovery that Seymour's daughter, Merry, had after a somewhat fortuitous connection with young radicals in New York City fallen under the spell of violent resistance to society, the Vietnam war, rejection of family, the whole package. One early morning she planted a bomb at the post office of her town and blew up the popular town doctor who was picking up his mail. She went into hiding at the home of her speech therapist, for little Merry suffered from a stutter; in time she "connected" again and after robbery and rape and gross ill treatment took part in an "action" that killed three people in Oregon.
This is the fall, paradise lost, the dramatic center of the novel. Yes, it could have happened; young men and women better educated than Merry Levov blew up a house in Greenwich Village, killing some of their own, went underground, and later some of them, low on funds, held up a Brinks money truck, killed the black driver, and subsequently went off to jail. There are other bombings and deaths, listed in the book. So poor Seymour, the Swede, still well-meaning and now a suburbanite, must wake up one morning like the Mayor of Castcrbridge and say: I am to suffer, I perceive.
The bomb-throwing plot is not altogether convincing on this particular stage. Merry must make a passage from her Audrey Hepburn scrapbook days to a loquacious, sneering radical life that has to be accepted as given, just as the introduction of a dreadful conspirator. Rita Cohen, must be accepted as a go-between in the battle between Merry and the Swede. What Rita represents is brought into question when Merry later says that she did not know her and perhaps Rita is part of Zuckerman's dream, as his knowledge of the details of the story is explained.
The most provocative shift in the portrait of Merry, as a death-dealing 1960s revolutionary, is that she passes from radicalism to the old Indian religion of Jain, which sought to release the spirit from the bonds of the flesh. Merry adds her own self-destructive interpretations of Jain with its passivity and pacifism. She eats almost nothing out of regard for the integrity of animals and also that of plants. When found by her father she is shrunken, living in filth, wandering alone in dangerous spots of Newark with the serenity of the abandonment of selfhood. This reminds us of the cultist aspect of the American revolutionaries of the Sixties, sometimes a small band bound together by their rants, paranoia, and above all the exaggeration of their power and the foolish underestimation of the power of society. Even the militia groups of the Nineties with their guns and explosives are swollen with a cultish sense of empowerment, a poisonous edema of stockpiling, camaraderie on the rifle range—until the transition of indictment for murder turns them into whimpering, plea-bargaining, helpless victims of consequence. Little Merry Levov takes instead the spiritual life in a drastic extension, but Roth, if he must have her as a bomber, has shown imagination about the loss of revolutionary enthusiasm when the aftermath must be faced alone.
That the Levov family is to suffer, by way of Merry, a catastrophe remote in a statistical sense, undermines the interesting close calls on the road of the Swede's American journey. The Swede has made a right turn into the highway of assimilation and this, it appears, is the true direction of the novel's intellectual and fictional energy. First, the Swede has married the beauty queen, Dawn Dwyer, a Roman Catholic. Even though Dawn surreptitiously had Merry baptized in the faith, they are, in the words of Seymour's brother Jerry, a bullying, bigtime coronary surgeon in Florida, "Knockout couple. The two of them all smiles in their outward trip into the USA. She's post-Catholic, he's post-Jewish, together they're going to go out there to Old Rimrock to raise little post-toasties."
Old Rimrock is a posh bit of the New Jersey countryside to which Seymour takes himself and Dawn in a sort of paroxysm of open fields, great old trees enthusiasm. Old Rimrock in Wasp, Republican Morris County. His father had wanted him to settle in a modern house in the "rock-ribbed Democrat" Newstead Development, where he could live with his family among young Jewish couples. No. For the Swede it is to be a hundred acres of land, "a barn, a millpond, a mill-stream, the foundation remains of a gristmill that had supplied grain for Washington's troops." And an old stone house and a fireplace "large enough for roasting an ox, fitted out with an oven door and a crane to swing an iron kettle around over the fire." Why shouldn't it be his? Why shouldn't he own it? "Out in Old Rimrock, all of America lay at their door. That was an idea he loved. Jewish resentment, Irish resentment—the hell with it." Dawn is somewhat concerned with Protestant ill-feeling about Catholics, but for the Swede: "The Protestants are just another denomination. Maybe they were rare where she grew up—they were rare where he grew up too—but they happen not to be rare in America. Let's face it, they are America."
In the 1940s Jews might have felt some anxiety about their reception in a rich enclave of old-family inhabitants viewing them with condescension if not rudeness. Such would not be true today when a Jewish media billionaire would be urged to buy, if such an opportunity arose in a period of regal retrenchment, an ancient bit of land in the woods of Windsor, where he could, on an occasional weekend, tramp about over the bones of Queen Victoria. In Old Rimrock, the Levovs make the acquaintance of an architect, Bill Orcutt, from a Morris County family that has filled the local cemetery with worthies for two hundred years. As Henry James observed about Hawthorne and the town of Salem: "It is only in a country where newness and change and brevity of tenure are the common substance of life, that the fact of one's ancestors having lived for a hundred and seven years in a single spot would become element of one's morality."
The Swede, by the time he meets Zuckerman in the New York restaurant, has been divorced from Dawn and has a new wife and children; and Dawn, brought near to suicide by the cruel biography of her daughter, has returned to life with a Swiss facelift and, in a thunderous rush of plot, made an alliance with the tombstone genealogist, Orcutt. It didn't work out, as the saying goes, the idyll of the young couple. Jerry, the angry sawbones brother, turns Merry in to the FBI, and along the way, driven by his fraternal jealousy of his paragon brother, Swede, denounces the life they shaped for Merry. "Out there with Miss America, dumbing down and dulling out. Out there playing at being Wasps, a little Mick girl from the Elizabeth docks and a Jewboy from Weequahic High. The cows. Cow society. Colonial old America. And you thought all that façade was going to come without cost. Genteel and innocent. But that costs, too, Seymour. I would have thrown a bomb. I would have become a Jain and live in Newark. That Wasp bullshit!" But Seymour in his love and grief for his daughter knows better. "It is chaos. It is chaos from start to finish." America gone berserk.
Among the ruins of time is the city of Newark, where the Roths reared the author, Zuckerman, with his elegiac memories of interiors, "the microscopic surface of things close at hand … the minutest gradations of social position conveyed by linoleum and oilcloth, by yahrzeit candles and cooking smells, by Ronson table lighters and Venetian blinds." And outside, autumn afternoons on the football field; down the main drag to movies on a Saturday afternoon; record shops offering Glenn Miller; and at the high school reunion damaged faces which still carry the trace of teenage beauty.
When the Swede and Zuckerman meet so many years later, Newark has been the scene of the devastating riots in 1967. It is now the "car theft capital of the world"; shops are boarded up; houses, once the shrine of relentless homemakers, are now smashed and splintered orphans; gunshots split the air, causing no more wonder than the screech of big trucks backing into a parking space. Newark, long ago the little Jewish Eden of Roth's youth.
American Pastoral is a sort of Dreiserian chronicle of the Levov family. Their painfully built fortune, even without the disgrace, might have declined owing to obsolescence, slower than a bomb, but going by the name of bankruptcy. Maids have not for some decades been in need of the finely stitched, soft leather gloves in matching colors. Gloves, except of coldest winter days, have gone the way of the ribbon shops in the West Thirties of Manhattan, ribbons for hats that were to go on the heads of proper women whenever they left the house.
Still the saga of the Levov family touching creative act and in the long line of Philip Roth fiction can be rated PG, suitable for family viewing—more or less.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4633
SOURCE: "The Indigenous Berserk," in New Republic. Vol. 217, No. 4303, July 7, 1997, pp. 36-41.
[In the following review Boyers comments on Roth's examination of moral virtues, decency, and American society in his novel American Pastoral.]
In Philip Roth's new novel, his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, alludes in passing to a once famous writer now largely forgotten, whose "sense of virtue is too narrow" for contemporary readers. The writer, no doubt about it, is Bernard Malamud. And what is it that passes for virtue in Malamud? In The Assistant, a grim and slender novel, the Jewish groceryman is eulogized as "a man that never stopped working … to make a living for his family," a man who "worked so hard and bitter," so that for his family there was "always something to eat." Morris Bober was "a good provider," the rabbi says, and, "besides," he was "honest." He assumed responsibilities. He showed up. He is to be venerated, without exaggeration or ceremony.
It is a narrow sense of virtue, to be sure, and not at all peculiar to Malamud among American Jewish writers. Saul Bellow, too, a provocateur who writes in a racy, unstable idiom and sometimes expresses a venomous antipathy toward the milder emotions, nonetheless swells with admiration for those who show and claim affection, who know, as we used to say, how to behave. "I saw now what I had done," says the narrator in Bellow's novella "Cousins": "treated him with respect, observed his birthdays, extended to him the love I had felt for my own parents. By such actions, I had rejected certain revolutionary developments of the past centuries, the advanced views of the enlightened, the contempt for parents illustrated with such charm and sharpness by Samuel Butler…." Susceptible to the allure of subversive ironies and modern ideas, the Bellow protagonist is still responsive to what he calls "the old thoughtfulness."
The narrow virtues have often seemed narrow precisely because they were thought to require little thought. Often they have seemed feeble and gray because they were believed to entail no struggle, no weighing of choices. Habit, it is often felt, is the paralysis of spirit. Ordinariness is the negation of virtue. What is dull and dutiful and comes more or less naturally is not to be prized. But Malamud and Bellow (and in this they were not altogether alone) hoped to identify in the ordinary activities available to any decent and thoughtful person, in social ritual and mundane interaction, a stay against the inhuman, against the brutality that ensues in the absence of the quotidian ideals and restraints.
Now Philip Roth engages this possibility. In his new novel, he examines decency, as it is embodied in a good-hearted man whose life seems for a while "most simple and most ordinary and therefore just great." No reader will be surprised to find that such a life turns out to be neither simple nor just great. No one will wonder at Roth's ability to show what can become of "ordinary" when an orderly life takes an unexpected turn, or the repressed rears its head, or the good and measured life seems suddenly tedious and intolerable. Roth has for a long time, through many books, developed a powerful and unanswerable subversion of the rock-solid assurances around which many people attempt to organize their lives. He has taught his readers to hold their noses when confronted by pious reflections on "the human condition." An expert in apostasy and distortion, he has made of his own occasional attraction to moralizing rhetoric an opportunity for savage contradictoriness and wit. His present interest in the ordinary and the virtuous is new in the sense that they now hold him, tempt him, transfixed and bewildered, in a degree not generally discernible in his earlier fiction.
The ordinary man in American Pastoral is an assimilated Jew with an unlikely "steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask" and the youthful attributes of a demigod. The young Seymour "Swede" Levov is a star athlete worshiped by everyone in his neighborhood in Newark, a large "household Apollo" of an adolescent who goes on from schoolboy fame to marry a Catholic beauty queen, inherit a thriving business, and move his family to a prosperous farm in rural New Jersey. The Swede is ordinary only in the sense that he shapes his life to the measure of the American dream, aspiring to no more and no less than his share of perfection, which is to say, an existence largely without misgiving or menace.
There is nothing ordinary, of course, about the superb physical grace, or the country estate, or the ravishingly beautiful wife, or indeed the temperament of a man who can seem both mild and confident, resourceful and contained. But Roth is most taken with his character's desire to be ordinary, at ease in his place, without great ambition, without any desire to tear through appearances or to rage against his own limitations. He draws a character who, for all of his success, may be easily condescended to as well-meaning, naive, blandly idealistic, without force—an average man, disappointing, pleasant, natural, displaying no capacity for irony or wit. Surely such a person—some will feel—deserves whatever can happen to him.
The Nathan Zuckerman who narrates American Pastoral, for whom Seymour Levov is an ostensibly remembered person and a character whose life needs to be imagined, is sorely tempted by the prospect of blasting such a life, stripping away every vestige of attractiveness from the character in all of his impeccable generosity and high-mindedness. An early reviewer of Roth's novel describes Seymour as a puppet, "mounted precisely for the purpose of being ripped," a figure who exists "to be punished": for his idealism, his grace and his credulous embrace of the good life. Not exactly. Zuckerman is more than a little bit in love with this fellow. Recently recovered from prostate surgery, impotent and in every way more subdued and more thoughtful than we remember him in previous Roth novels, Zuckerman wonders at the Swede the way one wonders at something moving and peculiar, something that defies explanation.
Still, explanations are advanced. Seymour's brother Jerry, a cardiac surgeon in Miami, has no trouble summing him up as the man with "a false image of everything," a man committed to tolerance and decorum, to "appearances" and the pathetic desire "to belong like everybody else to the United States of America." But this diatribe, it is clear, doesn't begin to explain Seymour, and the more he is assaulted by explanations and denunciations, and hears himself maligned and diminished, the more securely he remains a wonder, a man astonished to the end at the continuously unfolding spectacle "of wantonness and betrayal and deception, of treachery and disunity" and "cruelty." Zuckerman wants, like the others, to have done with the crummy goodness of this common man, to dismiss him as a man unable "to understand anyone," a man without a shit detector, a fraud. But he remains transfixed, somehow admiring and exasperated. Against his better judgment, he makes the man so much more appealing than anyone else he can invent.
Not until very late in the novel does Swede Levov understand what Roth insists that he grasp. "He'd had it backwards. He had thought most of it was order and only a little of it was disorder." But reality is otherwise. Nothing follows clearly from anything else. Where once there was thought to be cause there is now only chance. A secure home environment can bring forth anything at all. A person blessed with every good fortune may despise her life as surely as a person blasted by fate may remain an optimist. A man with a beautiful wife may be attracted for no apparent reason to a mousy woman deficient in every quality. Those who don't know these things may be virtuous in one degree or another, but they will not know what life is. That is what Zuckerman would have us accept. That is what Roth would seem also to support. But Seymour's capacity to arrive at this knowledge in his own way, his capacity for reluctance and suffering, is a part of what makes him a man we can admire.
But American Pastoral is more than an examination of virtue, more than an attack on the delusoriness of liberal good intentions. Roth means it also to be a portrait of America. It moves gracefully from one quintessential American setting to another, from factory floor to rolling hills, from beauty pageant to high-school reunion. Conversations turn on standard American themes, from assimilation to athleticism, from business ethics to sexual fidelity. Characters correspond to familiar American types, including WASP gentry, old-style Jewish liberals, and therapeutic intellectuals armed with fashionably advanced views. Historical markers—the Second World War, Vietnam, Joseph McCarthy, race riots, Weathermen, and so on—routinely identify the public landscape within which Americans of the pertinent generations move. The novel is eloquent in its evocation of vanished American neighborhoods such as Jewish Newark, and it allows characters to be sweetly or fiercely defensive about "what this country's all about."
The story line takes many turns, but in essence it is a fairly simple narrative. Zuckerman remembers the Swede, meets up with him late in life, learns what he can about him, and constructs a narrative of the Swede's life that occupies most of the novel. Seymour is the son of Lou, a prosperous glove manufacturer who looms large in his son's life until his death at the age of 96. Seymour tries to live the good life in an expensive WASP suburb, but he has to contend with a teenage daughter who develops from elfin companion to tormented stutterer, from antiwar protester to underground terrorist and bomb-throwing killer of innocent civilians.
Merry Levov remains, throughout the novel, a source of enormous agitation and distress for both of her parents. Seymour thinks about her incessantly, rehearsing various episodes in her life and reliving in his imagination all that she does and suffers. He recalls their acrimonious debates and her withering New Left invective. Most especially, he thinks about her setting off a bomb at a local post office and thereby killing an elderly man. He is contacted by a young companion of his daughter, who grotesquely exposes herself to him and offers to lead him to Merry if he will sleep with her. When he learns that Merry has been raped by someone in the terrorist underground, he cannot drive the fact from his mind, he seems almost mad with grieving and pity for his savage little lost girl. Though there are numerous opportunities for the novel to move in for a closer look at the terrorist operation, Roth is satisfied to focus on Merry and her revolting companion, emblems of the ravening ferocity of their kind.
In Merry's final incarnation, she is a fanatic of non-violence, a Jain who wears a mask over her face to avoid doing damage to delicate micro-organisms in the air. Her father cannot bring himself to turn her in when he has the chance, and he torments himself about what has happened to her, about his responsibility for having produced a monster. Though he cannot abandon his attachment to America and all that it has represented to him, he is sorely tried in his relations with his wife, his brother, and his father—particularly his father, a powerful man who periodically erupts in outbursts of colorful invective against degradation and indecency.
The dust jacket of Roth's novel promises a work that will take us back "to the conflicts and violent transitions of the 1960s." It invokes, in Roths language, "the indigenous American berserk," "the sweep of history," "the forces of social disorder." It describes, in short, a novel with large ambitions. The narrow virtues celebrated by earlier American Jewish writers were often played out in settings so circumscribed that one could feel the pressure to forget the world and to refine the perspective to a metaphysical essence. But Roth's novel is absorbed in worldly matters, in history. He wants to know how things happen, how places and events leave their mark on people.
There are instances, here and there, of the profligate extravagance that consumes so much of our attention in novels like Sabbath's Theater and Operation Shylock, with their verbal energy and their compulsive recourse to every variant of shtick and artifice. But American Pastoral strives mightily to situate its characters in a more classical manner, to insist that their passions are shaped, constrained, and exacerbated by circumstance. It worries about probability and verisimilitude, and it asks, again and again, how this can be and how that can be when reality so manifestly declares what is and what is not allowable. Questions of virtue and responsibility are complicated in this novel by what Henry James called the "swarming facts." It is not simply that nothing Roth imagines quite adds up; it is that he does not expect the facts to add up, that he supposes reality to lie in their multiplicity, their thickness of texture, their bewildering resistance to dreams of order.
So what is Philip Roth's America? It is a place where some people work and build and thrive while others fail and destroy and suffer. It is a place where everyone is increasingly aware of vast differences in wealth, and where those who feel guilty about their own successes are increasingly made to feel foolish and irrelevant. It is a place in which radical ideas about fundamental change are held almost exclusively by lunatics and by intellectuals so divorced from fellow-feeling that they can only laugh at deterioration and disaster, "enjoying enormously the assailability, the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things."
There is a side of Roth that likewise revels in the tendency of things to fall apart and to expose the illusoriness of order and optimism. But he is also susceptible to fellow-feeling. Roth appreciates, however reluctantly, the satisfactions that are sometimes generated by those who believe literally in the American dream. When Seymour Levov mourns the Newark destroyed by riots and decay, the Newark "entombed there," its "pyramids … huge and dark and hideously impermeable as a great dynasty's burial edifice has every historical right to be," Roth invests with weight and dignity the sense of loss for things hard-won and precious. His America, after all, is the place where immigrants not only make fortunes as a result of often despised virtues such as hard work and persistence, but in which those same immigrants often bring forth children endowed with vision and compassion.
It is possible, of course, to suppose that what Roth calls "the indigenous American berserk" has more to tell us about the country than the stories of immigrant success and the building of viable political institutions. Or at least it may tell us what Roth himself regards as fundamental to the American spirit: a propensity to violence, conspiracy, and irrationality. This propensity is not at all times and places obvious. Americans are adept at convincing themselves that it is a limited propensity, that it belongs to lunatic fringes that cannot in the long term threaten our collective commitment to reasonableness and tolerance. Yet Roth seems to believe that violence and irrationality are never very far from the surface of American life, that we deny it at our peril, and that our optimism is purchased in the way the individual purchases tranquillity, through repression and willful blindness. The daughter of Seymour Levov is not simply a lunatic. She is to be understood, insofar as we may presume to understand her, as an important expression of our collective unconscious. If this is not easy to accept, any more than we would find it easy to accept, say, that the Bader Meinhof gang in Germany or the Red Brigades in Italy expressed the deeper selves of the societies they terrorized, well, as the novelist would seem to say, there it is.
Merry Levov is Roth's exemplification of our impatience with limits, our hatred of the gradualism and the decorum that we profess to prize. As an adolescent growing up in the first days of the Vietnam War, she finds her opinions confirmed by her parents and her grandfather, but she grows impatient with their support. Like other young people involved in antiwar activities in the '60s, she finds a way to turn the epithet "extreme" against her own family, as in: "No, I think extreme is to continue on with life as usual when this kind of craziness is going on … as if nothing is happening." Those who are opposed to America's involvement in Vietnam must bear witness—so she insists—by turning against their own comfortable lives, if necessary by throwing bombs. Just so, those who profess concern for black people going to pieces in urban ghettos must refuse to persist in business as usual, must refuse to insist upon profits, even if their refusal should cause their factories to fail and jobs to disappear. The worst is not to be feared if it may be a prelude to drastic change. The American berserk, as embodied in the figure of Merry Levov, is associated with ideas that were pervasive in the '60s, and it is in part the burden of American Pastoral to suggest that these views really do express an important feature of American life.
The strangest thing about all of this is that Merry Levov never emerges in this novel as anything but a pathetic figure. As a child she is appropriately lovable and childish, but she rapidly grows into a fearful thing, twisted and angry, a caricature of herself. She becomes a type. She is, in fact, precisely the type pilloried by those critics for whom opposition to the Vietnam War and participation in the civil rights movement were mainly psychological expressions, the work of rebellious adolescents acting out their mostly impotent rage against authority. This tendency to reduce the movements of the '60s to an undifferentiated cartoon of adolescent rebellion is given new life in Roth's novel. By contrast, writers such as James, Conrad and Vargas Llosa, in their novels of politics and society, mounted a savage attack on bomb-throwers and ideologues while permitting them their misguided idealism and a sometimes adult grasp of power and injustice. To place Vargas Llosa's wild-eyed Alejandro Mayta alongside Merry Levov is to appreciate at once the dignified passion for radical renovation that the Peruvian novelist permits his character and the utter puerility and one-dimensionality of the American novelist's radical figures.
That Merry Levov is depicted as something of a lunatic is not especially objectionable, for it is surely true that there were lunatics and obsessives in the radical movements of the '60s. But she and her more luridly drawn companion are, in Roth's novel, the primary exponents of oppositionist and critical views. The conditions that aroused so many mature adults to participate in the antiwar and civil rights movements are barely mentioned in a book committed to examining the period. For American Pastoral, recent American radicalism is to be associated with irrationality and the unconscious. In fact, it was both more dangerous and less dangerous than that. There is no effort in Roth's novel to link it to the genuine tradition of American radicalism that goes back at least to Emerson and Thoreau and, in this century, to Randolph Bourne, Paul Goodman and Bayard Rustin, Merry Levov and her companions in extremism are all we need to know, apparently, when we come to consider what blasted the social order.
The failure of Roth's novel, in this respect, is quite considerable, however unmistakably particular passages are the work of a master. If there is such a thing as the indigenous American berserk, then surely it must entail a good deal more than a lunatic fringe largely limited to deranged adolescents acting out fantasies of retributive violence. And if these adolescents, who usually grow up into pinstripes, tweeds and cappuccino bars, can be so readily dismissed and condescended to by their elders, including Nathan Zuckerman, then how can they be said to represent an enduring and significant feature of American life, a tendency to which even the best of us are regularly susceptible? This novel wants to have it both ways. It wishes to develop an apocalyptic vision of the real America, the underside of our characteristic optimism and bland goodwill, but it wants also to propose that what we refuse to acknowledge in our pusillanimous American selves is pathetic, adolescent, laughable, and decidedly marginal, however terrible the occasional consequences associated with this "other," truer reality.
Consider Roth's presentation of the facts involved in the destruction of Newark. The dominant perspective belongs, more or less equally, to Zuckerman, to the Swede, and to his father. According to them, there was once a "country-that-used-to-be, when everyone knew his role and took the rules dead seriously, the acculturating back-and-forth that all of us here grew up with." Of course there were conflicts in that once-upon-a-time land, but they were usually manageable, they conformed to something about which you could make some sense. And Newark was very much a part of the "country-that-used-to-be," a place where pastoral visions may not always have been easy to come by, but where "the desperation of the counterpastoral" was also not much in evidence.
In Roth's reasonable Newark of Jewish and other immigrants, there are factories and businesses that produce well-made goods and turn reasonable profits. They employ people "who know what they're doing," who are pleased to do good work and more or less content with what they are paid. At least they do not complain. They are loyal to their employers, and they may well remember gratefully how things have changed for the better since the bad old times 100 years earlier when factories were places "where people … lost fingers and arms and got their feet crushed and their faces scalded, where children once labored in the heat and the cold…." The factory owners are also apt to have a vivid sense of their own origins, to remember working "day and night" and living in intimate contact with working people at all levels of manufacturing and selling. Their stubborn celebration of everything American has much to do with how well things can go when people believe in the system and rely on each other.
Given this account of reality, it is no wonder that the eruption of civil strife in the '60s should seem so incredible not only to the Levovs but, apparently, also to Zuckerman. The nostalgia for the "country-that-used-to-be" is so palpable in this novel that it virtually immobilizes the imagination of reality and leaves the reader susceptible to a rhetoric for which the deteriorating urban landscape is a "shadow world of hell" and predatory blacks roaming the Newark streets are part of a "surreal vision." Once, not long ago, according to this narrative, everybody had it good, or good enough. But many Americans suddenly went unaccountably crazy, and what "everyone craves" came to pass, "a wanton free-for-all" in which what was released felt "redemptive,… purifying,… spiritual and revolutionary." However "gruesome" and "monstrous" what followed, something real happened in Newark, something irresistible and deeply implicated in the American grain.
So we are to believe. Though the Levovs watched with horror, and deplored, and most other Americans presumably recoiled as well, we are asked to accept that somehow "America" spoke its deep, revealing truths in the intoxication of riot and mayhem. We are also asked to accept, as befits this pattern, that those who set the cities on fire, who beat on "bongo drums" while their neighbors looted and sniped and left behind a "smoldering rubble," were actually in flight from the good life. We are to accept—so the logic of the novel dictates—that the blacks of the inner city must have been incomprehensibly dissatisfied with their wonderful jobs and turned on by the prospect of liberating something vital and long buried in their otherwise admirable lives.
The problem is, Roth's book offers us no way to think about such a view of things. Its elegy for the dead city and its old ways is affecting, but it is also disconnected from anything like a serious account of what the old ways actually entailed, and what were the varied motives and desires of the inner-city residents who were caught up in the destruction of their own communities. To read Roth on the Newark riots is to suppose that just about everyone participated in the looting and the carnage, and that no one can have had good, concrete reasons for loathing the conditions in which they lived. To understand the '60s is, again, to invoke individual and group psychology, to refer to something deep and peculiarly American, to deplore what happened while at the same time suggesting that it had to happen and cannot be accounted for by citing social political or economic factors.
Roth's novel is finally not an adequate study of social disorder. It does not tell us what we need to know about America, what a novel can tell us about the complex attitudes and allegiances of a time and a place. It laments the denial of reality on the part of middle-class suburbanites such as Seymour Levov, while offering as the alternative to illusion "surreal" and "grotesque" eruptions such as few Americans are likely to encounter. It sets up as representative figures of disorder and "reality" persons who are mad, and whose attachment to disorder is so pathological that they make it impossible for us to consider seriously the actual sources of discontent in American society. When violence breaks out in this novel, it seems more like an inexplicable convulsion than an expression of feelings shaped by complicated individuals responding to the actual conditions of their lives.
And yet Roth's interest in an idea of simple virtue is an impressive achievement. For if the world, as he understands it, is a place of chaos and contradiction, in which order is fragile or even illusory, then virtue, too, may seem like a figment of someone's wishful thinking, a willed fantasy with nothing to sustain it. But Roth finally suggests that it is not. Like the rest of us, he wonders what virtue can be worth when it is rarely effectual in worldly terms. And he refuses to allow goodness to sweeten anything, to distract him from what we are and what we do. Yet his triumph in American Pastoral is the portrayal of persons who are unmistakably good and genuine. They understand no better than he does what to make of events that astonish and assault them, but they do not give up on their sense of how to behave.
Seymour Levov is no paragon of perfect virtue, and his father can seem shrill and forbidding in his vehemences. But these are men who continue to display thoughtfulness, however much reason they have to be disappointed and to flee in bitterness from the decencies that make them seem irrelevant to their contemporaries. The father may have absurd ideas about how to deal with disorder—"I say lock [the kids] in their rooms"—but he is strangely appealing in his insistence that "degrading things should not be taken in their stride." That is right. And the son, who suffers greatly, who does not know enough, who takes "to be good" everyone "who flashed the signs of goodness," retains in Roth's hands the capacity to be appalled—not thrilled, but appalled—by transgression, to be tormented by the spectacle of needless suffering, and to think, ever to think, about "justification" and "what he should do and … what he shouldn't do." His humanity is intact. And it is, Roth seems to be saying, the only thing we can rely on.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1033
SOURCE: A review of American Pastoral, in Christian Century, December 17, 1997, pp. 1202-03.
[In the following review, Fodor asserts that Roth's American Pastoral is interesting not only due to its treatment of "earlier, seemingly simpler times in American history, but also because Roth uses his story to examine the failures of American idealism in public life."]
In 1960 Philip Roth wrote, "The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's meager imagination." It's hard now to imagine what horrors Roth had in mind during what now seems the halcyon Eisenhower epoch. In his 22nd novel, Roth looks back on the transition from what his characters nostalgically remember as the "American pastoral" of the '50s to what they often experience as the "American berserk."
In American Pastoral Roth's alter ego, novelist Nathan Zuckerman, tries to make sense of the life of his high school hero, Seymour "Swede" Levov, a grandson of Jewish immigrants who has made good in America: "all-city end in football; all-city, all-county center in basketball; all-city, all-county, all-state First baseman in baseball." A good-looking blond, Swede married the dark, petite and marginally Catholic former Miss New Jersey. He became a successful CEO of the glove business his father built from scratch, owner of a dream house in the New Jersey countryside and devoted father of the bright, talented Meredith "Merry" Levov.
So much apple-pie achievement is really not something Zuckerman finds interesting—until he learns that at age 16 Merry exploded her father's life by setting off a bomb in the local general store and post office in protest against the Vietnam war, killing the family doctor and then vanishing from her parents' lives.
For Zuckerman, Swede represents the Jewish boy who has successfully assimilated to American culture and captured the American dream. Swede embodies the hope of each generation to achieve more than its forebears. Merry, his only child, was to have received the benefit of all the good he could provide. What went wrong? Zuckerman wonders. He imagines Swede incessantly worrying, beneath his strong, calm exterior, that all the hard work, right living and good parenting of three generations has produced a generation of monsters. Is it possible that all the achievements of the Depression-era generation have somehow engendered the violent protests of the baby boomers in the '60s and '70s? Has the "flight of the immigrant rocket" begun its inevitable descent?
Though Swede isn't a religious man, shortly before Merry plants the bomb he experiences a sense of "something shining down on me," of being blessed. Such moments of joy, the novel suggests, are merely the calm before the storm, paradise before the fall. Revising Milton's version of Genesis, the novel is divided into three sections: "Paradise Remembered," "The Fall" and "Paradise Lost." It is not sin but goodness that has led to this fall in a world that offers no promise of redemption and no contact with God except through religious rituals that seem more and more obscure to each generation.
Swede's story will also remind readers of Job's. After his child, marriage, work, home and health have all suffered or been destroyed, Swede, like Job, experiences the joy of a new family. His second try at creating the ideal American family produces three smart, athletic, good-looking boys. Perhaps this perfection can remain unassailed. Yet, unlike Job's this is not a story of restitution through reconciliation with God. The snake is always lurking in the garden.
Roth's snake is not so much the active presence of evil as the persistence of chaos despite our best attempts at creating order, our propensity to "get it wrong" despite our efforts to understand and act rightly, and the inevitable decline and decay of our lives, not only physically but in our inner selves. Observing a neighbor who became an alcoholic after her children grew up, Swede realizes, "What was astonishing to him was how people seemed to run out of their own being, run out of whatever the stuff was that made them who they were and, drained of themselves, turn into the sort of people they would once have felt sorry for."
While these are timeless concerns, this novel expresses the particular perspectives of its 60-something author, narrator and hero as they look back over their lives. At a 40th high school reunion, Zuckerman and his classmates lament the number who have died and remind each other to be tested regularly for prostate cancer. Zuckerman himself has been left impotent and incontinent by prostate surgery. The sense of decay in the American way of life articulated in the novel parallels the experience of physiological decline and the looming reality of death.
The impossibility of achieving the American dream of the '50s and the sense of betrayal during the Watergate years may not be compelling themes for younger readers. But American Pastoral is engaging not only because Swede appeals to our nostalgia for earlier, seemingly simpler times, but also because Roth uses his story to examine the failures of American idealism in public life.
At a time when many contemporary writers focus on the experiences of ordinary life, Roth narrates a life that both fulfills and destroys the possibility of perfection even as he suggests that a happy ordinariness is ultimately impossible. "No one gets through unmarked," Zuckerman realizes. Yet while Swede experiences evil for which he can find no clear explanation and while Zuckerman acknowledges that novelists, like all of us, inevitably "get it wrong," both characters embody that strain of American optimism that keeps trying to get it right.