Sunday, November 15, 2009

279. American Pastoral - Philip Roth

History: This book was published in 1997, and won the Pullitzer Prize in 1998.
Plot: Roth alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, who is the narrator, comments on the life of Swede Levov, a high school athelete he admired and respected. Swede was a legend in his own time within his Jewish neighborhood, an extraordinary athlete who was the embodiment of "American" to his contemporaries, to their parents, to their little brothers and sisters. The Swede's younger brother, Jerry, was Skip's best friend, and that friendship gave the eventual writer ample opportunity to observe and worship his idol. He sees Seymour Levov many years later at a baseball game. Swede Levov has aged gracefully, looking every bit the successful and contented businessman that no one from their neighborhood ever doubted he could become. He seems, to Skip now, impossibly serene, as though the Swede is unafflicted by any depth, that he is incapable of having anything other than the perfect life.
A short time later, Skip receives a letter from Seymour "Swede" Levov, asking that they meet to discuss a private memoir of the Swede's and his brother Jerry's father, a glovemaker whose company the Swede eventually inherited and successfully carried on. Unable all these years later to resist the quiet, legendary Swede, Skip meets with him. But at the lunch, the Swede makes no mention of his father or of a memoir, simply talks of his sons and of memories of Newark before and during World War II. Skip's impression, is not exactly of shallowness, but of layer after layer of surface, of glowing blandness and self-contentedness. He tells of his wife and 3 sons, constantly keeping up that vacant smile. Skip Zuckerman thinks he is insane, and they never meet again. Skip leaves the meeting disappointed and a little bewildered about his own continuing fascination with the great Swede Levov.
At a high school reunion, in 1995, Skip runs into the Swede's brother Jerry -- once his intense, combative Ping Pong-playing best friend, now a several-times-divorced and very successful surgeon. Skip mentions having had lunch with the Swede, and Jerry stuns him by saying he's just come from his funeral. The Swede knew he was dying when he met with Skip, and as the two reminisce, Skip comes to realize that there was far more to the Swede beneath that seemingly unscratchable surface.
He learns another story of him, the tragic derailment of the life after his teenage daughter Merry in 1968 set off a bomb in protest against American involvement in the Vietnam War, in which the rest of the book describes. Seymour Levov remained traumatized for the rest of his life. The rest of the novel consists of Zuckerman's posthumous recreation of Seymour Levov's life.
In Zuckerman's reimagining of Seymour's life this second marriage has no part; it ends in 1973 with Watergate unraveling on TV while the previous lives of all the protagonists completely fall apart.
Seymour Levov is born and raised in the Weequahic section of Newark as the son of a successful Jewish-American glove manufacturer. Called "the Swede" because of his anomalous blond hair, blue eyes and Nordic good looks, he is a star athlete in three sports and narrator Nathan Zuckerman's idol and hero. The Swede enlists in the Marines, like his father, and then eventually takes over his father's glove factory, Newark Maid, and marries Dawn Dwyer, an Irish-American Miss New Jersey 1949 winner (the actual winner that year was Betty Jane Crowley).
Levov establishes what he believes to be a perfect American life with a beloved family, a satisfying business life, and a beautiful old home in rural, Old Rim Rock, New Jersey. Much of the book describes his relationship with his daughter, the beloved Merry, who was a precocious and intellegent child until approximately age eleven, and then begins to go insane. Merry is also suffering from a speech impedement, stuttering. However, Swede blames himself, because of a prolonged kiss he gave her somewhat inappropriately on the way home from the beach when she was eleven.
As the Vietnam War and racial unrest wrack the country and destroy inner-city Newark, the teenage Merry, outraged at the United States' conduct in Vietnam, becomes more radical in her beliefs and in 1968 commits an act of political terrorism. In protest against the Vietnam War and the "system", she plants a bomb in a local post office and the resulting explosion kills a bystander. In this singular act, Levov is cast out of the seemingly perfect life he has built and thrown instead into a world of chaos and dysfunction.
Like a number of real-life members of the Weather Underground, Seymour's daughter goes permanently into hiding. This destroys her doting parents, and they begin to fall apart. Dawn is hospitalized twice, in a mental health facility, and has a face lift as well. Swede has an affair with Sheila, Merry's speech therapist, whom he eventually finds has harbored Merry soon after the bombings. Dawn, too, has an affair.
Also, Rita Cohen, acting as a spokes person for Merry, has a few encounters with Swede, and swindles ten thousand dollars out of him, but then telling him he must have sex with her if he wants to see his daughter, which he doesnt.
In Zuckerman's narration, a secret reunion of father and daughter takes place in 1973in Newark's ruined inner city, where Merry is living in abysmal conditions. During this reunion, she claims that since the first bombing she has set off several other bombs resulting in more deaths and that she has been repeatedly raped while living in hiding. 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.
Review: Philip Roth has sexual hang-ups and identity issues and ongoing self-obsession, which he regularly parses into novel-sized chunks, with wariness. The most interesting person in the book is Merry, not Swede. The last 100 pages of the book, take place at one of Swede and Dawn's dinner parties. They talk about pornography and they talk about elections and, they talk about glove making. It's like being trapped in a room. The daughter who provides a little insanity is gone. She's subtext. You want her to come back.
There are long sections of conversation (one features the Swede's bulldog of a father interrogating his Catholic future daughter-in-law about anti-Semitism), that just go on and on. Structurally, the book is poorly shaped. Roth fills the novel with all sorts of rabbit trails that lead off all over the place. It’s hard to keep an eye on what exactly you’re talking about. When he returns from his rabbit trail, it’s hard to pick up the story where you left it. At times, for example, I didn’t know whether he was talking about the past or the present.
Roth doesn't circle back to the 90-page preamble featuring Zuckerman, the ending feels arbitrary and the gratifying if bracing payoff that "American Pastoral" vigorously promises throughout is denied. We don't find out about his second marriage, and even how and when his first marriage ended, and how Merry ended either. It's as if Roth became weary of endless conversations at the dinner party, the drunk woman stabs his father with a fork, and the book is over.
Opening Line: "The Swede."
Closing Line: "What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?"
Quotes: "You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance…and yet you never fail to get them wrong…You get them wrong when 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 someone else about the meeting and you get them wrong all over again…the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception."
Rating: Good.

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