American Pastoral by Philip Roth
American Pastoral was published in 1997 and is the first novel in a second trilogy featuring Roth’s well known character, Nathan Zuckerman, as narrator who is often described as Roth’s alter ego. The novel won Roth the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1998 to go with the many other literature prizes Roth has been awarded throughout his career including; 2x National Book Awards for Fiction, 2x National Book Critics Circle Awards, 3x PEN/Faulkner Awards, the Man Booker International Prize, and the Franz Kafka Prize. He has been described as one of the most awarded U.S. writers of his generation.
American Pastoral according to GoodReads:
“Seymour “Swede” Levov – a legendary high school athlete, a devoted family man, a hard worker, the prosperous inheritor of his father’s Newark glove factory – comes of age in thriving, triumphant postwar America. But everything he loves is lost when the country begins to run amok in the turbulent 1960s. Not even the most private, well-intentioned citizens, it seems, gets to sidestep the sweep of history. “American Pastoral” is the story of a fortunate American’s rise and fall – of a strong, confident master of social equilibrium overwhelmed by the forces of social disorder. For the Swede is not allowed to stay forever blissful inside the beloved hundred-and-seventy-year-old stone farmhouse, in rural Old Rimrock, where he lives with his pretty wife – the college sweetheart who was Miss New Jersey of 1949 – and the lively, precocious daughter who is the apple of his eye. The apple of his eye, that is, until she grows up to be a revolutionary terrorist bent on destroying her father’s paradise. “American Pastoral” presents a vivid portrait of how the innocence of Swede Levov is swept away by the times – of how everything industriously created by his family in America over three generations is left in a shambles by the explosion of a bomb in his own bucolic backyard.” (GoodReads)
However the story is not told from the perspective of Swede Levov but is actually narrated by Nathan Zuckerman. The book does focus on Levov’s revolutionary daughter and how her act of terrorism shatters her father’s world but I think this excerpt from Michael Wood’s NYT article best describes what this book is really about:
“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, 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?”
Have you read this novel? What did you think of it?