“What sort of mental existence had been his? What, if anything, had ever threatened to destabilize the Swede’s trajectory?”

So asks the narrator of the novel, Nathan Zuckerman, a stand-in for Roth who appears in the first quarter of American Pastoral and then retreats to the background as the Swede’s story unfolds, a brilliantly executed narrative strategy Roth deploys in a number of his acclaimed novels.

The Swede is Seymour Levov, a hard-working, perfectly content, handsome, athletically talented, blessed-by-the-gods, Jewish shining star from a Newark family, an heir to a glove-making business who wins the heart of and marries Miss New Jersey: the Catholic princess, Dawn Dwyer.

Into their mid-1960s pastoral life—charmed, simple, serene—in Old Rimrock, New Jersey, in a great old stone house on hundreds of acres of land safe from the increasing blight of Newark, a little tragedy must fall.

That tragedy takes the form of the Swede and Dawn’s daughter, Merry, . . . “the angry, rebarbative, spitting-out daughter with no interest whatsoever in becoming the next successful Levov . . . The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral—into the indigenous American berserk.”

The perfect life, perhaps the oblivious and entitled life, the life that appeared to be natural and rightful: shattered.

In sixth grade, during “philosophy week,” Merry is assigned to write on the question “What is life?” While other students write long answers about being here to do good or make the world a better place, Merry writes one sentence:

“Life is just a short period of time in which you are alive.”  

She develops a debilitating stutter and grows into an angry, fanatic 16-year-old who rails against the political system and the Vietnam war, gets mixed up with radicals, and ends up planting a bomb in the Old Rimrock post office that kills a man. She disappears and later resurfaces as a fugitive-in-hiding, a vulnerable, pathetic Jain who had planted more bombs and killed more people, and the Swede can do nothing to help his daughter.

“He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach—that it makes no sense.”

It’s an incredible story that dispels the mirage of the American Dream and jolts the innocent Swede into consciousness and self-awareness. There are amazing passages that detail the glove-making business, a seemingly dull topic turned fascinating in Roth’s skilled hands. There is a compelling give-and-take between Dawn on her future father-in-law as they negotiate the perils of a blended Jewish/Catholic family. Mostly there is the Swede and Merry, two characters transformed by the America around them.

Not everything hits the right notes. Dawn, as the former Miss New Jersey, raises cows on their homestead but at times seems little more than a beautiful object and broken mother who goes to Switzerland for a facelift after the tragedy involving Merry. Many readers have complained about Roth’s depiction of women, and the fact is Roth was of his times and he sees and writes from a twentieth-century male gaze, but for me the story and the characters were no less compelling.

American Pastoral is on my list of the Most Important Novels in My Life and it firmly belongs there for its powerful depiction of universal themes and Roth’s genius writing style and narrative voice. I could just as easily have chosen for my list another of his novels, The Human Stain, which turned out to be a prescient look at the deadly downside of cancel culture.

Roth was the definition of a literary lion, winning almost every award possible in literature, except for the Nobel Prize (that committee seemed against him). If you decide to read Philip Roth, start with one of these two books.

By David Klein

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, journalist, avid reader, discriminating screen watcher.


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