Book Review: American Pastoral by Phillip Roth

I’ve read two books by Philip Roth previously: Goodbye Columbus which I can’t even really member and Portnoy’s Complaint which is such a horrifying example of misogyny it made me swear of Roth for life. So I was a bit leery when my alumni chapter book club selected American Pastoral (1997) for our February meeting. A few pages into the book there’s a scene at a Mets game at Shea Stadium and I started warming to the book a bit right there.

The novel tells the story of Seymour “Swede” Levov, a handsome and talented high school athlete who gains legendary status in his WWII-era Newark neighborhood. After the war ends, Swede marries Miss New Jersey, inherits his father’s glove-making factory, and settles in a stone house in rural New Jersey. Swede and his wife Dawn raise one daughter Merry, Swede’s pride and joy. The American Dream appears fulfilled. Everything comes crashing down as Merry becomes involved with political extremists protesting the Vietnam War and bombs the local post office/general store, killing one man.

That’s basically the whole story in a nutshell, but the fills the novel’s many pages with long passages of the characters’ inner thoughts as they examine their lives. This storytelling style is especially illuminating – gripping even – when it focuses on Swede Levov. Unfortunately, Roth is ever the misogynist and thus his insights on the female characters are rather one-dimensional.

The novel also has an odd narrative structure. The first third of the book is written in first person by Nathan Zuckerman, who 45 years after graduating high school still has an obsession with Swede Levov the high school athlete, an obsession that tests the bounds of credibility. After a hundred pages or so, Zuckerman drops out of the narrative as a character although one has to assume that he’s still narrating the entire story, which creates a question of whether or not he’s a reliable narrator. The whole novel ends unsatisfyingly with no closure whatsoever.

I’ve mixed feelings about this book. Parts of it are brilliant, bringing a place, an era, and a personality to life, but it’s also weighed down by wordiness and inconsistency

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