Book Review: American Pastoral by Philip Roth

I thought it might be fun to begin each review with the book’s first sentence or two.  So here you go:

“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.”

American Pastoral by Philip Roth is a book I might never had read if left to my own devices.  However, with the undertaking of reading Time Magazine’s 100 Best English language novels since 1923 I could not hope to escape Roth.  I’m always apprehensive to read an acclaimed writer – and Roth’s accomplishments are heady.  With mild trepidation, I opened American Pastoral and found myself lost amongst mid-century Newark, New Jersey.

Roth holds true to that sage, old advice:  write what you know.  His books are highly autobiographical – they often take place in Newark, involve battles between Jewish and American culture, and have an insane amount of penis references (or so I’m told).  Pastoral tells the tale of Seymour ‘The Swede’ Levov – a neighborhood hero both in childhood and adulthood.  He’s the star athlete, the patriotic marine, and the apple of his father’s eye who transcends his Jewish beginnings to end up an American ideal.  He marries Miss New Jersey (a Catholic!) and they have a daughter, Meredith (Merry).

When his beloved daughter commits an act of political terrorism against the Vietnam War, Levov’s life is utterly changed.  The bubble of perfection is burst and now he must deal with the social and familial ramifications, the loss of a daughter, and try to find where it all went so wrong when he had done everything right.

The story unfolds in three parts:  Paradise Remembered, The Fall, and Paradise Lost.  We often find ourselves looking at Swede through the eyes of his younger brother’s friend and classmate, Nathan Zuckerman, an accomplished writer.  At other times we get lost in Swede’s thoughts as he meanders through the past – trying desperately to pinpoint the exact moment he lost his dear, Merry.  Roth buries us in the past – overwhelms with nostalgia and the illusion of better times.  But it’s the illusion that truly dies the morning Merry commits her sin.  Roth wants us to understand that no matter how much we idolize generations past – each decade has its monsters.  No one year is any better than the other.

Personally, I do believe that everyone (especially Americans) should read at least one Roth in their lifetime.  Why just one?  Many people have criticized that once you’ve read one – you’ve read them all.  But he writes beautiful prose, renders a masterful story, and his diction is easily understood.  His characters are at once loathsome and enchanting.  Just wait until you meet, Lou Levov, the Swede’s father!  What he lacks in subtlety he makes up in humorous insight.  So go forth and read!

Very rare:  5/5 stars

Year Published:  2007

Pages:  423

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