Sunday, December 14, 2008

American Pastoral

I've finished reading Philip Roth's novel American Pastoral (1998). I'm relieved in some ways that it's over. The novel is beautifully written, psychologically and emotionally complex, and filled with fascinating characters who are drawn with such sympathy that the reader cannot forget them. But the novel is also a dark, taxing trip through a family tragedy, at times plunging the reader into stream-of consciousness despair from which it seems we will never emerge.

The novel’s main event is a political one: the bombing of a small-town post office by a sixteen-year-old girl, in militant protest of the Vietnam war. One person is killed, and the young girl – who disappears into hiding - becomes known as the Rimrock Bomber.

American Pastoral is the story of her father. He is Swede Levov, the firstborn son of a Jewish glove-factory owner, whose athletic achievements, physical beauty, and austere personality made him a legend in his wartime high school days in Newark. Swede grows up to take over his father’s glove business, marry Dawn Dwyer (an Irish Catholic and a former Miss New Jersey), and move to a beautiful stone house in the New Jersey countryside. The birth and life of his daughter Merry is a source of idyllic joy for both Swede and Dawn.

But the Vietnam War seems to change everything, and Merry is quickly swept up in the radical anti-war, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist movement. As Swede listens to his daughter rip his bourgeois lifestyle to shreds, their conversations seem like a typical father-daughter clash of generational values. He believes she’s an unthinking participant in some kind of youth culture; he believes it’s a phase that she’ll pass through. She believes he’s the one who’s not thinking. But because of the fatal bombing that follows, these conversations become an epic struggle for Merry’s heart and sanity.

The bombing – which explodes not only the local post office, but also Swede’s understanding of himself, his family, and everyone around him – seems like the novel’s apocalypse. But others follow. The Newark race riots destroy the city; Dawn is institutionalized for the shock and grief of what happened to her daughter; and Swede is terrorized by a woman claiming to be living with Merry. The novel is a portrait of a chaotic era, seen through the eyes of a man whose entire previous existence never prepared him for anything like this. Swede’s stream-of-consciousness often surfaces and goes on for pages, full of tragic questions: Where did this daughter come from? How did they produce her? What happened to her? Where is she? Is anything what it seems?

Roth treats issues of religion, class, and gender with such sensitivity that it’s hard to capture the scope of his work here. He does a nuanced job discussing Dawn’s experiences as Miss New Jersey: the way she feels forced to hide it, the way she must do something – anything – so that people will understand she is more than an ex-beauty queen. His treatment of the Newark race riots is quick but vivid, and includes the voices of Swede’s father, who angrily refuses to sympathize with black Newark residents he employs. In particular, Swede and Dawn’s experience of moving to Old Rimrock – where, as a Jew and a Catholic from working-class backgrounds, they face some Wasp scrutiny – is a sharp and important aspect of the novel. After all, the membership status they’ve struggled for is the very status that their daughter violently, vehemently rejects.

What happens to Merry after her disappearance – grotesque, violent, incomprehensible – seems explicitly designed to show Swede the darkest, ugliest side of the human experience. For the reader, it’s not easy to watch, but Swede’s struggle to understand is worth participating in.

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