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American Pastoral by Philip Roth – what’s left of the American dream?

January 4, 2020 23 comments

American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997) French title: Pastorale américaine.

Three generations. All of them growing. The working. The saving. The success. Three generations in raptures over America. Three generations of becoming one with a people. And now with the fourth it had all come to nothing. The total vandalization of their world.

American Pastoral is the first volume of Philip Roth’s American trilogy, featuring Nathan Zuckerman as Roth’s doppelganger. I read them backward, starting with The Human Stain, then reading I Married a Communist and finishing with this one.

American Pastoral dissects the life of Seymour Levov, nicknamed the Swede because he was a tall blond teenager. He was the star of Weequahic High, the high school that Zuckerman attended in Newark. He excelled in sports and Zuckerman was friend with Jerry, the Swede’s younger brother.

With American Pastoral, Roth digs into a mine that has three lodes. The closest to the surface is the Swede’s life and personal tragedy, from Weequahic High star athlete to father of a terrorist. Just underneath is the rise and fall of Newark as a city, from a big industrial center to a poor city gangrened by violence. And the deepest vein is America’s history and the end of the American dream that, according to Roth, died with the Vietnam war and the Watergate.

The Swede is the personification of the American pastoral, the story the country sells to itself and to its newcomers. He’s the son of a Jew who had a small glove business. He was jock and his high school’s star. He enrolled in the Marines during WWII. He married Dawn, a Catholic girl who was elected Miss New Jersey. He grew his glove business into a multinational and became rich. He moved to Old Rimrock, right in Republican county. He did everything he could to be all-American, a WASP.

As a family they still flew the flight of the immigrant rocket, the upward, unbroken immigrant trajectory from slave-driven great-grandfather to self-driven grandfather to self-confident, accomplished, independent father to the highest high flier of them all, the fourth-generation child for whom America was to be heaven itself.

Somewhere along the way, the narrative went wrong. As Jerry bluntly sums it up to Zuckerman:

You should have seen them. Knockout couple. The two of them all smiles on 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. Instead they get that fucking kid.

That fucking kid is Merry, the Swede and Dawn’s daughter who put a bomb into Old Rimrock general store and killed one person to protest against the Vietnam war. She went underground and left a hole in their parents’ lives. Dawn collapsed and the Swede held on, with questions gnawing at him under the surface. Where was she? Where did it go wrong? How did his little girl become this monster? Could they have prevented it? What did they miss? Were they instrumental to her rage? All questions with no real answers.

Merry is the personification of the end of the American dream.

The daughter who transports 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.

The Swede rehashes Merry’s formative years until this fateful year of 1968 when she bombed the store and when Newark experienced the worst riots of its history. The Swede saved his business but the city never recovered from this destruction. He didn’t save his daughter from self-destruction.

With the Swede’s story, we also witness the change in the American (and Western) economies: it’s more profitable to make gloves or other goods abroad and the deindustrialization of Newark begins. The city’s economy collapses and poverty and violence take hold of its streets.

And last, beneath the surface of the Swede’s tragedy, Roth tells us that the Vietnam war and the Nixon debacle put an end to the American dream. The years after that were about keeping up appearances.

I thought that the construction of the book was puzzling. We start in 1995 with a journey into the past. First, Zuckerman has lunch with the Swede, who wants him to write about his father’s life. Like the boy he was, Zuckerman is in awe to meet with his childhood hero.

Then we’re at the 50 years anniversary of Weequahic High 1945 class. That’s Zuckerman’s year. When I was reading this part, I was thinking of Time Regained and then Roth mentioned Proust’s madeleine himself. Roth borrows a lot to Proust in American Pastoral. A dinner at the Swede’s, with their parents and their friends takes several chapters and looks like a party at the Duchesse de Guermantes. Roth describes the discussions and goes behind the scenes to disclose what is behind appearances.

Then we dive into the Swede’s tragic life and never come back to the present. The book seems like it’s standing on the edge of an abyss and we’re left there, scrambling to remember the beginning and what Zuckerman learnt about the Swede’s life to fill the dots and come back to present times. It felt strange.

My brain can see that it’s a deep and fascinating book. It raises questions about America and offers a line of analysis. But I can’t say I had a lot of pleasure reading it. Some passages were boring and I struggled to stay interested in the Swede’s inner turmoil, Merry’s stuttering or Dawn’s conflicting feelings about her beauty. There were too many details about glove making, which had a purpose, mainly to show how industry turned from a semi-artisanal business to mass production in low cost countries.

It’s not my favorite Roth, maybe because I missed his humor. It’s barely present in American Pastoral as soon as the high school reunion is over. And I love Roth’s sense of humor.

I’d still recommend it because Roth develops a vision of America that is worth reading about.

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