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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

American Pastoral

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful:

October 30, 2006

I found this book to be fascinating and frustrating to read at the same time. Fascinating in that Seymour Levov--the Swede--is such a robust, fully realized character. Frustrating in that the first hundred pages are dedicated to Philip Roth (ie, Nathan Zuckerman) and his class reunion and his prostate cancer and his admiration of the Swede. Frustrating too in that this is a novel that doesn't go from point A to point B directly but instead swoops around in endless circles so that in the end we find there's not much more we know about the plot than we did at the start.

What there is of the plot is that the Swede thinks he has the American Dream. He runs the glove factory his father built, he marries the former Miss New Jersey, he has his dream house in the country (and vacation home in Puerto Rico), and he has a beautiful daughter named Merry. But soon enough everything starts to go downhill for the poor Swede. Merry develops a stutter that won't go away despite the help of "experts" and her interests in the counterculture of the 60s become radical until one night she blows up the post office/general store, inadvertantly killing a local doctor. The pain of Merry's terrorist act and subsequent years on the lam begin the downward spiral of the Swede's inner life as he's tormented in trying to figure out what he did wrong. Eventually we're led to believe his wife (after getting an expensive facelift in Switzerland) is having an affair and race riots in Newark have decimated the Swede's factory. When the Swede does meet Merry again she's wasting away as a Jain so dedicated to her new religion that she won't even bathe and one day will die from starvation.

That's really as far as the story ever gets. We're left to fill in the details from the first third of the book when Philip Roth talks with the Swede's curmudgeonly brother Jerry, but we can't ever be entirely sure what happened to the Swede's first wife or daughter, although we do know he gets a second wife and has three boys at some point. What we can be sure of is that even if the Swede appears happy on the outside he's broken on the inside.

As a character study this book is simply fascinating. Roth really gets inside the Swede, fleshing out all his thoughts, hopes, dreams, and fears for us to see so that we have a complex portrait of a "typical" upper-middle-class American. The object of the book then isn't so much for entertainment but to make us think about our concept of the American Dream and America in general.

It's unfortunate we have to suffer through a hundred dull pages of Philip Roth, er Nathan Zuckerman, before the story gets going. Once Roth gets out of Roth's way the story begins, although if you're hoping for a straight-ahead plot-driven yarn this isn't it. This is definitely NOT airplane reading or beach reading. It's a very intimidating read with paragraphs that go on for pages and that keeps skewing from one tangent to another tangent, though it all forms a rich tapestry. Perhaps not as good as Updike's Rabbit Angstrom novels, but interesting nonetheless.

So if you can get past the first third of the book the rest is definitely worth reading to give you a lot of food for thought. If you only want entertainment, better look elsewhere.

That is all.

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