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'American Pastoral' by Philip Roth

Roth Holds The Key

Sunday, April 27, 1997

By Bob Hoover, Book Editor, Post-Gazette


American Pastoral

By Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin


The pastoral is one of the oldest literary forms, invented over and over since it first appeared in ancient Greece. At its most elemental, it's a story set in the wholesome healthy countryside away from the temptations and corruptions of society.

America became the greatest pastoral setting of the Western imagination, eventually creating its own version, the Wild West of cowboys and Indians.

The title, "American Pastoral," seems a natural, even if the setting is postwar Newark, N.J. This is Philip Roth's back yard, fictionally and autobiographically, the birthplace of both the novelist and his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, the priapic hero of five other novels.

Time and his prostate have slowed Zuckerman down when the book opens at the 45th reunion of Newark's Weequahic High School class of 1950, where he learns of the death of Weequahic's greatest athlete, Seymour "Swede" Levov.

"The name was magical; so was the anomalous face. Of the few fair-complexioned Jewish students in our preponderantly Jewish public high school, nothing possessed anything remotely like the steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask of the blue-eyed blond born into our tribe."

Here is the classic hero of Roth's pastoral. Not only did the Swede resemble a member of the WASP ruling class, he behaved like one. "His aloofness, his seeming passivity . . . made him appear, if not divine, a distinguished cut above the more primordial humanity of just about everybody else at the school."

There's more. Levov was wealthy, had served with distinction in the Marines and was the husband of Mary Dawn Dwyer, Miss New Jersey of 1949. Taking over his father's glove factory, the Swede was a fair employer and refused to move the plant out of Newark as the city declined in the riot-filled 1960s.

The all-American hero with his beauty-queen wife lived in Old Rimrock, N.J., a country town of colonial homes and farms far from Newark. Mrs. Levov even raises prize cattle.

The opening chapters contain some of Roth's best writing. With swift, sure strokes, he creates a warm, golden past of community and hope, subtly tinged with just the right dose of nostalgia. His characters are believable, interesting and full of life.

This book is a classic pastoral in every respect, but one - it goes sour. Tragedy strikes, and it became "Paradise Lost."

It's "the tragedy of the man not set up for tragedy - that is everyman's tragedy," says Zuckerman as he learns of Swede's fall from grace.

The source of his tragedy is his only child, Merry, whose naive act of protest in 1968 against the Vietnam War makes her a killer, a fugitive and the constant reminder of what the Swede has avoided in his golden life.

She is "the daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral - into the indigenous America berserk."

At 16, Merry plants a homemade bomb in the village post office, a misguided attack on a symbol of the government she hates because of the war. The bomb kills the local doctor, and she disappears into something similar to the Weather Underground.

There's a bigger pastoral scene here - confident postwar America oblivious to the coming storm of violence and betrayal of the 1960s and '70s - the "America beserk." The final section of Roth's book unfolds five years later on a summer night during the Watergate hearings, as guests gather for dinner at the Levov's 200-year-old farmhouse. It's a night of discovered betrayals (both Levovs have become adulterers) and violence.

Merry is still underground, although the Swede has found her unrepentant, living in filth and hunger in a Newark slum. She's planted more bombs and killed more people; she's also been beaten and raped frequently; she despises her mother. It's more pain than the Swede knows how to bear, and it paralyzes him.

The fall of the house of Levov mirrors the collapse of the American postwar dream. "The old system that made order doesn't work anymore," says the novelist.

Roth believes that Swede Levov, who lived by the old system, was crushed by that system because he defied the rules. A Jew who married an Irish Catholic. A Jew who did not raise his daughter in the faith. A Jew who aspired to the "American way of life." A Jew who left his community to live among the gentry.

Full of echoes from Roth's earlier novels, "American Pastoral" is his most powerful assault on the "lovely, trusting dreamy country" that has turned nightmarish.

Sometimes, he pounds his message home with a sledgehammer, but Roth writes so well he can make even a sledge sound lyrical. This is his third novel in four years; the others were awarded major literary prizes.

"American Pastoral" is again a triumph, the work of our best American novelist at the peak of his powers.

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