Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is a paean to the contradictions in American life, and to the friction between the noble idea of America and the latent defects and darker truths about it: patriotism and greedy self-interest; innocence and guilt; enduring hope masking inevitable despair.
Roth’s ironic take on iconic Americana includes a good man at its center, Seymour “Swede” Levov, a gifted athlete who’s become a committed and extraordinarily successful businessman, who wants what he’s supposed to want and generally gets it; a wife and former-Miss New Jersey of 1949, who becomes a talented and dedicated rancher raising award-winning heifers; and a daughter who grows up close to her father while stunted by a bad stutter. All these people generally mean well but make some big mistakes. Roth sets them up before the mirrors we parade past from time to time, here in the days of the Vietnam war and its associated protests and social upheaval. If you’re like me and don’t miss those days, this book will remind you why.
The story is told by at least three different narrators, with little if any signaling of each shift, and in several different timelines that recur again and again. This can be annoying to be sure, but the overall result is nothing short of a tour de force. The truths that lie hidden in the characters and the country spring upon us like wildcats; we get a good taste of this at the end of Part II, but nothing can prepare us fully for the cascading cataclysms that wash over us wave after wave at the end of the novel. The result of all this, it seems to me, is that many readers will give up before they get there, and I can’t say I’d blame them: I’m a reader who often takes that path when tested by confusing timelines, shifting points of view, and various other forms of writerly high-wire high-jinks. The reader has to work much harder at Philip Roth than Richard Ford, and they are two of our very best American writers. But make no mistake, this novel deserves all the plaudits it received, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1998.
Roth swings only for the fences here. He surely knows foul tips are the cost of this approach, but there’s no other way. And nothing is left to the spaces between the words—a good thing, I suppose, because the overlong paragraphs leave no space on the page to work with. Near the end of a paragraph that runs well over a page and recounts the decision they made long ago to move to Old Rimrock, is:
“If she could marry a Jew, she could surely be a friendly neighbor to a Protestant—sure as hell could if her husband could. The Protestants are just another denomination. Maybe they were rare where she grew up—they were rare where he grew up too—but they happen not to be rare in America. Let’s face it, they are America. But if you do not assert the superiority of the Catholic way the way your mother does, and I do not assert the superiority of the Jewish way the way my father does, I’m sure we’ll find plenty of people out here who won’t assert the superiority of the Protestant way the way their fathers and mothers did. Nobody dominates anybody anymore. That’s what the war was about.”
Note that Swede is not exactly being quoted here (the marks signal only my quoting the text of the novel), but we’re clearly being given his perspective, and it seems extraordinarily naïve from the perspective of 1997, and possibly the time of the fictional discussion in the 1950’s.
He uses the different points of view, especially near the end, not just to create a picture of the Swede from every angle, but to show Swede’s own significant shortcomings:
“How to penetrate to the interior of people was some skill or capacity he did not possess. He just did not have the combination to that lock. Everyone who flashed the signs of goodness he took to be good. Everyone 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 primarily that of the Swede, but the portraits of his wife and daughter are striking, and told from the point of view of several different characters both in the novel, and outside it. Here’s the Swede himself, two parts of a long discussion with one Rita Cohen, who’s reporting on his daughter Merry, now a fugitive from justice:
“Merry shoveled cowshit from the time she was six. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Merry was in the 4-H Club. Merry rode tractors. Merry—”
“Fake. All fake. The daughter of the beauty queen and the captain of the football team—what kind of nightmare is that for a girl with a soul?”
* * *
“Merry’s mother works a farm all day. She works with animals all day, she works with farm machinery all day, she works from six a.m. to—"
“Fake. Fake. Fake. She works a farm like a fucking upper-class—”
“You don’t know anything about any of this. Where is my daughter? Where is she? The conversation is pointless. Where is Merry?”
“We’re talking about the humiliation of a daughter by her beauty-queen mother. We’re talking about . . .”
What Merry’s done not only destroys the Swede, of course. The shock of it has overturned everything his wife has become—had even turned her against him, for wooing her away from her dreams, not of being a beauty queen but someone of substance, with a college education and a teaching position. He visits her for long hours in a psychiatric hospital, until the staff has to ask him to leave late into the night.
“The next night she’d be angry all over again. He had swayed her from her real ambitions. He and the Miss America Pageant had put her off her program. On she went and he couldn’t stop her. Didn’t try. What did any of what she said have to do with why she was suffering?”
* * *
"And then the change occurred. Something made her decide to want to be free of the unexpected, improbably thing. She was not going to be deprived of her life.
"The heroic renewal began with the face-lift at the Geneva clinic she’d read about in Vogue. . . ."
"Needless to say, the remedy suggested in Vogue in no way addressed anything that mattered; so remote was it from the disaster that had befallen them he saw no reason to argue with her, thinking she knew the truth better than anyone, however much she might prefer to imagine herself another prematurely aging reader of Vogue rather than the mother of the Rimrock Bomber.”
The face-lift can be seen as the first domino to fall, and I wouldn’t undertake to catalogue all the changes it wrought in all the lives concerned. American Pastoral is worth the read.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .