Book #34: American Pastoral
Have you ever been to a party, a wedding reception, a family reunion, and the moment in which you open the door, you feel it—that nagging sense of “Oh no. I have to put on my happy, smiley face now.”
The fakeness settles in. You smile, chat, blow smoke about the weather and baseball, but the whole time you’re thinking…I don’t really like you. I don’t really want to talk you. Your breath smells like lite beer.
Ever been there?
If so, you’ll relate well with Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. In 423 pages, Roth pretty much sums up what it’s like to be a fake man, married to a fake wife, attending parties with other fake people, and generally living a fake life.
The only thing true in the life of Roth’s main character, Swede Levov—the former high school stud athlete, successful businessman, family man, a non-practicing Jew from Newark—is his crazy daughter, Merry, a political terrorist who protests the war in Vietnam by killing people who have nothing to do with the war in Vietnam.
Merry Levov is the only daughter of “The Swede”—who earned his nickname because of his imposing figure, blonde hair, and Nordic good looks—and his wife Dawn Levov, a former Mrs. New Jersey who hates being known as a former Mrs. New Jersey.
Merry grew up with a stuttering problem that tormented her. In her teenage years, she latched on to protesting the Vietnam war with an over-the-top nastiness that scared the Levovs to death.
American Pastoral is essentially a story about the downfall of a family who “had it all”—the nice house, the money, the good looks, the social standing—and watched it all fall down around them, thanks to an out-of-control teenager and two parents who refused to face reality.
Shocker…it’s a sad book. Yet another one in this 101 book journey. But it’s one of the more brilliant written, emotionally-charged sad books you will ever read.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Roth seems very in-sync with the human psyche. I think that’s what makes him such a successful author (and not just in terms of sales)—he gets what it means to be a human. That’s why he has two novels on the Time list (the other: Portnoy’s Complaint).
Roth captures what it must be like for a successful father, a dad who has done it all and who is a legend in his local community, to feel completely helpless when it comes to reigning in his teenage daughter. He captures what it must be like for that dad to watch as his family crumbles all around him.
The following passage pretty much sums up Swede Levov:
Everybody who flashed the signs of loyalty he took to be loyal. Everybody who flashed the signs of intelligence he took to be intelligent. And so he had failed to see into his daughter, failed to see into his wife, failed to see into his one and only mistress—probably had never even begun to see into himself.
The story is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman–a character who appears in many of Roth’s novels and who is a former classmate of Swede Levov. The story is broken into three sections: “Paradise Remembered.” “The Fall.” And “Paradise Lost.”
In a lot of ways, American Pastoral reminds me of The Corrections. And it makes sense because Jonathan Franzen was heavily influenced by Roth. That said, I think Roth is much better writer than Franzen.
Both stories follow a family in vain pursuit of the American Dream. Much like The Swede, Enid Lambert does her best to keep the family together, to keep up “appearances,” while her crazy children fall into all sorts of trouble. Chip Lambert is the liberal child who, like Merry, does his own thing and tosses any type of moral expectations to the wind.
For all its strengths, though, American Pastoral is a little dry in spots. You’ll read more than you ever want to know about glovemaking–the Levov family business.
And the ending? Well, I don’t want to say a lot about the ending, other than I expected a little more. But I guess that’s the impatient reader in me, wanting to see some type of closure to a story in which the author doesn’t offer much closure. To me, the story just didn’t have a satisfying ending.
Without telling you how the book ends, though, I will say that the setting for the final scene is perfect. A cocktail party, one of the strangest dinner parties you will ever read about. It’s the perfect summation of Swede Levov’s life in one extended scene. Fake smiles are everywhere.
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.
Another zinger from Zuckerman, via Roth.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Roth’s writing is spectacular. Not just the crispness and clarity of his writing, but also the philosophical nature of it.
He’s really in tune with the human spirit and that comes out in the narration of Nathan Zuckerman. I hope I don’t sound trite when I say it’s just extraordinary writing.
Other than a few dry spots, American Pastoral is an outstanding book. If you’re interested in American culture post-Vietnam war, then it’s a must-read. This is one of the premiere novels by a man considered to be one of the premiere novelists still living.
The Opening Line: “The Swede. During the war years, when I was still a grade school boy, this was a magical name in our Newark neighborhood, even to adults just a generation removed from the city’s old Prince Street ghetto and not yet so flawlessly Americanized as to be bowled over by the prowess of a high school athlete.”
The Meaning: People tend to be fake, so what are you going to do about it? Join in on the fakeness or be yourself?
Highlights: Some of the best, well-crafted characters I’ve come across to this point. Swede Levov might be one of the top three characters I’ve ever encountered in a novel. Roth writes in a way that you feel every bit of the Swede’s emotion as he slowly falls into the reality that his life is crumbling. It’s a beautifully told dark story.
Lowlights: The story is a little boring in spots. Several 10-15 page sections in which you’re told a lot about things that you might not find very interesting ( e.g. glovemaking). Also, the ending was disappointing for me.
Memorable Line: “Life is just a short period of time in which you are alive.”
Final Thoughts: Don’t worry about the minor weaknesses I’ve mentioned. American Pastoral is worth reading. Prepare to be depressed, though. It’s a sad book. But like so many on this list, it’s a sad book told by an amazing author–which makes it worth reading. I’m very eager to read Portnoy’s Complaint–Roth’s second book on the list.
Buy American Pastoral. (affiliate link)