“Of old. Stories of old. There were no longer stories of old. There was nothing. There was a mattress, discolored and waterlogged, like a cartoon strip drunk slumped against a pole. The pole still held up a sign telling you what corner you were on. And that’s all there was.” (p. 236)
American Pastoral, by Philip Roth
Phew, what a relief to be done this book. While it is undeniably brilliant, it is a very difficult read, owing to the depths of despair and inhumanity that it delves into on a regular basis, with the above quotation being one of my favorite descriptions of how bad things can get.
Seymour “Swede” Levov is a man who ends up getting eaten up by history. An athletic star nigh-worshiped by his hero-seeking community in a 1940s New Jersey reeling from the Second World War, the Swede finds out just how far he can fall from grace by the end of the book’s core narrative in the 1970s. This is due to his daughter Merry, who becomes a violent radical in the SDS/Weathermen mold during the Vietnam War, and becomes involved with a bombing that irrevocably changes the life of her family, allowing for the layers of artifice that held the Swede’s American “pastoral” ideal life to start sloughing off like so many layers of decaying wallpaper in a shitty apartment.
This novel presents, to me, the greatest argument ever in favor of corporal punishment for disciplining children that has ever existed. Yes, I know this is nowhere near the real point of the book, but to me, the entire problem could have been solved with a few swats on the ass of Merry Levov, the world’s most indulged terrorist. I spent most of the book hoping, almost pleading with the Swede to finally just snap and beat the shit out of some of the people who were ruining his life, but he never indulged me. His sin is that he only ever wanted everyone else to be happy. He was so happy himself early on, after getting back from a hitch in the Army and marrying Miss New Jersey, that he could not even fathom the idea that the other people around him were, for the most part, miserable sacks of neuroses and yearning.
I must say though, for as depressing and frustrating as I found the Swede’s inability to recognize how much he was truly being screwed over, and his reluctance to do anything about it, American Pastoral taught me a lot. For one thing, I certainly know a lot more about how gloves were made over the first half of the last century, far more than I really needed to know, but still. Also, Roth definitely helped me get into the mindset of how a radical ideologue was constructed during this era. This is a period in history I find very interesting; I wrote what I feel was my best paper in university about the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers, and the respective reactions of the FBI to them both. Note of course that Merry was not actually old enough to be an original member of the Weathermen; she instead takes their philosophy and runs with it let’s say. The book doesn’t go into much detail about the groups she gets tangled up with, but other SDS offshoots are mentioned.
Roth doesn’t really spell out what drove Merry to start chucking bombs around, at least that I saw, but he does lay out a series of social pressures put upon her, that could in turn perhaps drive her to radical behaviour: being precociously smart at a young age, having something that marks you out as different to your peers (in this case a stutter), having parents who either dote on you or do not attempt to sympathize with you at all, etc. Where it’s fairly easy to see where the Black Panthers were coming from, what with the centuries of oppression and all, I’ve always had a little difficult of a time seeing how a member of the Weather Underground could be forged. I always saw them as dilettante-y, but this book at least gave some background into how at least one of them could have gotten to that point.
The structure of the novel is interesting too. I didn’t know until after reading it that it technically falls into Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman series of novels, because I found him to be of limited use to the narrative. Zuckerman, a writer, narrates in the first part of the book, “Paradise Remembered”, where among other things he attends his 50th high school reunion and shows us how he and the Swede’s other high school classmates saw him from the outside. Later on he eats dinner with the Swede, who wants him to eulogize his father, Lou Levov, with a book. Zuckerman spends most of this sequence being bored by the Swede’s pleasant descriptions of his life and believing that it is as bland as it appears. Most if not all of the commentators I’ve read just now indicate that the second and third parts of the novel, “The Fall” and “Paradise Lost” are Zuckerman’s retelling of the Swede’s downfall. How Zuckerman finds out all this stuff, I’m not too sure, he has a brief conversation with the Swede’s brother but that’s it. I guess he’s just an amazing writer or something.
Apparently this book is being made into a movie for 2012. There are definitely going to be some things taken out so as to not get an NC-17. And Hollywood? Paul Bettany is not the Swede. Jon Hamm with bleached hair is the Swede.
“He’d had it backwards. He had made his fantasy and Merry had unmade it for him. It was not the specific war that she’d had in mind, but it was a war, nonetheless, that she brought home to America – home into her very own house.” (p. 418)
Total Pages read: 1768 pp
Next up on the Resolution Project: Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret (1970)