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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.

Other Stuff

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)

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35 Comments Post a comment
  1. Excellent review. I’ve had this one on my list to re-read for a long time now. Roth is such an intellectual but effective writer. However, I’d recommend many, many, many of his books above Portnoy’s Complaint. I’d go with The Human Stain, So I Married A Communist, Goodbye Columbus, and The Plot Against America, for starters.

    Kevin Devine wrote a song about Merry Levov. It’s really great.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHWzWEpdX-Y (starts at 1:05) and lyrics http://www.songlyrics.com/kevin-devine/awake-in-the-dirt-lyrics/

    Liked by 1 person

    January 11, 2012
    • Cool…amazing how books inspire music. I remember posting about one musician who wrote an entire album based on Blood Meridian.

      Like

      January 11, 2012
    • I read ‘Goodbye Columbus’ for a class and it really stuck with me as a freshman in college. Now that they’re doing a movie based on ‘American Pastoral’ I definitely want it to be good!

      The cast looks good so far, especially Dakota Fanning as Merry:
      http://www.iflist.com/stories/americanpastoral#

      Like

      February 18, 2015
  2. I group AP together with Corrections and Revolutionary Road as criticisms of the American suburban psychology. Each of the stories involved characters contorting their true selves around the expectation of suburban life.

    One other note, the scene with The Swede and the older Mary is one of the most painful things I have ever read. I thought Roth perfectly captured father’s desperate, unconditional love for his daughter. No easy task.

    Like

    January 11, 2012
    • Good points. That was a brutal scene. I can’t imagine it.

      Like

      January 11, 2012
  3. I don’t know about reading this one, I’m still trying to finish The Corrections. Maybe on a very sunny day.

    Like

    January 11, 2012
  4. “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?”

    Oh my gosh yes, and I am so not good at it. Which is hard since I live in the Deep South where as women we are expected to smile and be hospitable no matter what.

    Like

    January 11, 2012
    • As a guy who grew up in the deep south, I’ve been there too. Why do we do that to ourselves?

      Like

      January 11, 2012
  5. Lisa #

    I’m glad you mentioned the influence this book had on Jonathan Franzen. I saw Roth’s influence even more in Franzen’s “Freedom.” I’m sad you didn’t enjoy the ending. It just goes to show that readers love closure and writers love ambiguity, eh?

    Like

    January 11, 2012
  6. Robert,

    Fine review. I think it’s worth noting, though, that the book is only partly about the Swede. American Pastoral is really about how we mythologize the past, and how wrong we almost always are.

    The reader has to keep in mind that the portrayal of the Swede that we’re given is almost entirely out of Zuckerman’s imagination. It is his attempt to reconcile what he thought he knew about his boyhood hero and what he comes to learn later on.

    So the reason the book ends so abruptly, without resolution, is because that’s as far as Zuckerman can take his version of events. And it just doesn’t make sense. It’s almost as if he throws his hands up and says, “This is the best I can come up with, and it still isn’t enough to explain what happened.”

    I think it’s that extra layer — that the story we’ve been reading is mostly an imagined one — that gives American Pasotral its poignancy, and why this is my favorite Roth novel. All the stories we tell ourselves still aren’t enough to explain why people do the things they do.

    Like

    January 12, 2012
    • The first time I read it I was very frustrated with Roth’s non-ending, but as you pointed out, it’s really Zuckerman’s non-ending, and it just adds to the beauty of the story.

      Like

      January 12, 2012
  7. I have never heard of this book,but thanks to your blog and the review, it is going on my “need to read” list!

    Like

    January 12, 2012
  8. I’ve been impressed with Roth’s writing since he made believe that Anne Frank had survived WWII. It was only for a little while but I was so caught up in reading that I somehow forgot it was ‘only’ fiction. (In ‘The Ghost Writer’ in Zuckerman Bound).
    Anyway, as you relate the theme of the book, it reminds me of Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin but from the mother’s point of view. The difficulties of raising a child – and a teenager in particular.
    Thanks for this review. I really need to continue reading Roth’s Zuckerman books.
    /Christina

    Liked by 1 person

    January 15, 2012
  9. Nice review. I’ll have to put this on my reading list.

    Liked by 1 person

    January 17, 2012
  10. I downloaded this on audiobook from the library based on your ranking and I have had it on my ipod for months – just started it today and I can’t stop listening. Roth really has a way of telling a story that is at once mundane and compelling. Thanks for the recommendation!

    Liked by 1 person

    September 28, 2012
  11. Sissy #

    I just finished this book. I thought it was reasonably decent. I really loved the emotions and how they’re fleshed out slowly until you finally see the whole picture in the end, but some scenes are just way too long and tedious. The high school reunion at the beginning and the introduction of the Orcutts near the end come to mind as being so tedious I nearly put the book down.

    Liked by 1 person

    May 12, 2013
  12. May interest the author to know that while Franzen was in fact influenced by Roth, especially by Sabbath’s Theatre, he has enthusiastically trashed American Pastoral on a number of occasions.

    Like

    March 10, 2014
  13. This is a great review – definitely identify with the comment about the VERY in-depth glove making lesson but that’s Roth for you! They are finally making a movie and Ewan McGregor will star and make his directorial debut – see the rest of the cast and if you have any ideas for who should play Rita, Chip etc. you can dream cast here: http://www.iflist.com/stories/americanpastoral#

    Like

    February 18, 2015
  14. J.E. Fountain #

    I just finished AP, my first by Roth and I had no expectations. Marvelous novel. As always, you offer excellent commentary. My review: http://100greatestnovelsofalltimequest.blogspot.com/2015/11/american-pastoral-by-philip-roth-63.html

    Like

    November 25, 2015

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