My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Note: This is the first part of Philip Roth’s American Trilogy. The review of the second part, I Married a Communist, may be found here. The review of the third part, The Human Stain, may be found here.
American Pastoral charts the life of Seymour ‘The Swede’ Levov from the post-war optimism in the USA of the 1940s, through the decline of the American Dream with Vietnam and Watergate and, in the background at least, on to the (almost) present day of decline and a society riven.
The narrator features early in the work as a friend of the Swede’s brother, Jerry. The Swede himself, a few years older than the narrator, is the American Dream personified. He’s the good guy, the school athlete, the guy who did his bit in the war as best he was able coming into it so late. For those around him, he is a hero. At school he is beloved of students and teachers both. He makes good with his father’s glove-making business and earns the devotion of his employees. Though Jewish, a quirk in genetics has him WASP-ideal blond, able to move readily out of his own community, to marry a Catholic beauty queen… and with that, things begin to break down.
The fracture exists from the get-go in the very premise. Yes, there’s a sense of community in Newark New Jersey but still, roles are played between fissures within the society. The blacks in the community are the employees in the glove factory and yes, they’re well treated, but the division is there. The Jews form their own community and thrive within it but again, blond hair is surely an asset for the one who truly breaks out of it. In Roth’s portrayal, there’s little conflict. Indeed, people work well together. However, the divisions are there.
The narrator, then, can give us the start of the story from personal experience, his own school days within which a pivotal moment was his own public acknowledgement of recognition from the Swede at a game in which the Swede was playing, something frequently back-referenced.
The early part of the book sets the scene for the Swede and the postwar environment both, though narrated from the end of the 20th century, a few years before the millennium. The narrator is to meet the Swede again, an unexpected call in which the Swede asks the narrator to use his skill as a writer to tell the story of the Swede’s father who has recently died and yet, when the meeting takes place, the Swede’s father isn’t mentioned. Instead, the Swede talks with pride of his three children, a pride that seems exaggerated in its intensity. At first this seems like boastfulness until we are presented with the second major scene featuring the narrator himself, a high school reunion, he and his former classmates now well into their sixties.
This provides the narrator with the opportunity to see extreme transformation up-close and personal. The Newark, New Jersey in which they had all lived and studied is no longer a community, but is now ravaged, the worst of urban deprivation. Jobs have been lost overseas. His classmates have largely done well for themselves, but have they done well by those criteria they would have set for themselves when he had last known them? It is this latter that is symbolised by his meeting with a girl he had been attracted to at school who reveals to him that yes, the feeling had been mutual… but now she is in her sixties, his interest is no longer there in the way he once had wished it, and in this there’s a great poignancy in the passing of time that shines upon, and finds itself reflected in, so many other encounters the narrator has that day.
Slightly too conveniently, a minor flaw in the book, it is his close friend Jerry Levov, the Swede’s brother, that he meets only at the end of the reunion to be told that the Swede had just died, and that he had known himself to be dying the day he met the narrator. Life, it turns out, had not been so good for the Swede after all, Jerry tells him. By a first marriage, never mentioned in their meeting in which the Swede had spoken only of his children by his second marriage, he had had a daughter who, reacting to the Vietnam war, had set off a bomb which had killed a man and gone into hiding.
The scene is now set for the narrator to muse upon the life of the Swede, and it is this that takes the narration over – with most of the story left to run – until the work’s end, all that preceded it a prelude from which we may hear echoes.
The skill of this book, what makes the bulk of it so difficult to commentate on, the reason – rightly – the work is so revered is that all that follows is interpretive. Our narrator, remember, has little knowledge of the Swede beyond some trivial encounters in childhood, a stilted recent encounter preceding the Swede’s death, and a few bare facts drawn from Jerry’s brief remarks, and yet he reconstructs the Swede’s life in great detail both from the point of view of events and of the Swede’s take on them. Immediately we are confronted with an overarching fact; the narrator is himself being highly interpretive. Can we rule out, in his reconstruction so fictionalised it barely figures as a reconstruction at all, the narrator’s own prejudice?
And what of what we bring to the story ourselves as readers? We see a life in decline, a nation in decline, a vivid and accurate portrayal of that decline, but to what are we to attribute it? My own attribution, unconscious, up there. Divisions within society. Is that Roth’s? The narrator’s? Or my own? It seems to have validity from the point of view of the narrator at least in the closing passages, the ‘American pastoral’ of Thanksgiving in which divisions are forgotten, but forgotten only one day of every year. However, again, is this author-bias? Narrator-bias? My bias? The story ends in the 1970s, and we know that – at least to some degree – the Swede was to rebuild his life in a second marriage, but was the meeting with the narrator a reflection of genuine pride, or a desperate overstatement on the part of a man already broken, for whom the re-instatement of the conventions can now only ever be seen as a thin veneer over the harshness of the reality they serve to obscure?
The skill of the work is that, in the perspectives with which we are presented – those of Roth, (perhaps); the narrator, (perhaps); the Swede, (perhaps); his renegade daughter, (perhaps); and others around the central character of the Swede himself, (perhaps) – the perspectives, then, though detailed, do not exist in fact and remain, as a blatant fiction, ambiguous. That there is a societal malaise, perhaps many a malaise both societal and common in the lives of individuals, is undeniable, and the malaise itself is accurately presented, the social situations that form the backdrop of the work undeniable. To what it may all be attributed is for the reader. It is even for the reader to decide whether attribution is possible or whether life is chaotic, unpredictable, too broken to be given societal-level solutions, all down to the luck of each life’s recipient.
And perhaps even in saying that I am presenting my own bias, that others may derive from the work some entirely other focus for the narrative.
Ideas and character are at the forefront here. There’s action aplenty. There is rape, marital infidelity, bombs going off, riots, and yet any opportunity for action arising from these Roth coldly eschews. These are given to us in a few sentences – to use the hideous vernacular of the present day, they are told, not shown. That is clearly intentional. Such drama has no more place here than would cheerleaders at an international chess competition. And yet, just as a chess competition can be dramatic for the lover of chess so too, for those who are concerned about life, about society, about conventions and their rejection or acceptance, about life itself, here there is drama aplenty.