American Pastoral

Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with American Pastoral in 1998. Finalists for that year were Underworld by Don Delillo and Bear and His Daughter: Stories by Robert Stone. This novel is part of what is considered The American Trilogy, a collection of books by the same author that includes I Married a Communist and The Human Stain. I started here with the intention to skip over to The Human Stain once I revisit Roth. It does not seem to matter if you read them in order or not.

The main character was based on a real person, Seymour “Swede” Masin, a Jewish athlete of admired repute. I’m not a sports person and had no previous knowledge of Masin, though I feel I’ve met him (in a way) after having spent 432 pages getting to know “Swede” Levov, protagonist. Imagine a good Jewish boy that grew up to be a stand-up, attractive adult. Everyone likes him. He marries a former beauty queen and they have a beautiful baby girl. It all starts out to be a picturesque vision of the quintessential American dream, set in New Jersey.

This novel is on the Goodreads most difficult novels list, and here’s why I think that is: Everything goes horrendously wrong. This good guy, who never hurt anyone in his life and wouldn’t bear to even risk insulting anyone has his internal fortitude dashed to pieces in a hail of discontent. His daughter, Merry, becomes a radical political activist adept at setting off bombs. There is intentional death that occurs by her hand and no substantial explanation for what caused her to tip. I finished my first reading thinking there was an unnamed disease present whose side-effects were anger, confusion, and despair. (Fittingly, the protagonist dies of prostate cancer, so lets enjoy the social commentary there. Did he die of cancer, or was he susceptible to cancer because he was already so weakened by what his life had become?)

The fiction in this novel didn’t seem like fiction, leaving me with a sense that the possibility of a perfect life is remote. If this guy can have his world pulled out from under him, then what hope is there for the rest of us?

Most of American Pastoral is the inner dialogue of the Swede, though there is a definite plot which drives this character along to his ultimate demise. The novel touches on the intricacies of the Levov’s relationship with his daughter, his wife, his brother, his community, and himself. If you like to listen, the audio version narrated by Ron Silver is absolutely exceptional. Silver won an Audie Award for Best Solo by a Male for his work in the 1998 release.

American Pastoral is on my favorite novels list. I liked that despite the seeming flawlessness of the characters’ younger lives, the author shows us how the white on their proverbial picket fence is simply an outer shell of paint. Beneath the veneer of whom they seem to be are real problems, motives, challenges, and depth. Perhaps I side with Merry insofar as I felt gratified by all the knots and dings these people carried under the surface.

I enjoyed the complexity of this novel. Even if you remove the trigger to the Swede’s downfall and omit the part of the story which is Merry’s terrorist acts, there still remains a realistic characterization of how we deal with the other people in our lives. What is it to be a parent? A husband? (And for some of us, a Jew?) How far can we expect our individual influence to reach as members of a family or community? Can we prevent chaos from seeping into our lives, or is entropy unavoidable?

If you have a penchant for unanswerable questions and family dysfunction with a touch of nihilism, then this book might interest you as well. Those triggered by intense family trauma should probably avoid it. Nevertheless I thought it was an excellent book that set a new bar on what I like to see in well developed characters struggling through an impossible situation.

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