The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
Canon
, Ted Gioia reviews
American Pastoral
 by Philip
Roth.
American Pastoral
by Philip Roth

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Sometimes even familiar writers can surprise you. Who would have
predicted that Truman Capote, by then a quasi-comic presence on
TV talk shows, would deliver such a poised and controlled
masterpiece as
In Cold Blood? Who would have believed that Ken
Kesey would take a long enough break from hallucinogenic drugs
and Merry Prankster-dom to write
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
and
Sometimes a Great Notion? Who would
have guessed that J.D. Salinger would live to
the ripe age of 90, but stop publishing for the
last 45 of those years?

And then there is the case of Philip Roth . . .

Most people sizing up Mr. Roth’s oeuvre at
the time of his 40th birthday (back in 1973)
would probably have pigeonholed him as a
literary representative of the sexual
revolution or perhaps as a connoisseur of
taboo and quasi-neurotic strains in American life. Mr. Roth had just
published
The Breast, sort of a genitalia-ized alternative to Kafka’s
The Metamorphosis, in which his protagonist turns into a large
mammary gland. And his best known and biggest-selling book,
Portnoy’s Complaint, did for onanism what Mario Puzo (author of
the second best selling novel of 1969 behind Roth’s work) did for
gangster stories.

Portnoy’s Complaint was banned in Australia and morphed into a
punchline for jokes. When Dick Cavett quipped that one of his male
guests needed to cancel his appearance on his show because “he was
suffering from Portnoy’s complaint,” the network censors cut the
witticism from the broadcast. In a memorable bon mot, Jacqueline
Susann noted her interest in meeting Roth, but added: “I wouldn’t
want to shake his hand.”

Yet by the time we get to
American Pastoral (1997), a different side
of Roth has apparently emerged. His protagonist here is the exact
opposite of what we have come to expect in our Roth heroes.
Seymour “Swede” Levov is a high school sports legend who has
grown up to embody almost every aspect of the American dream.
He is married to a former Miss New Jersey, operates a successful
business, and comes across as a bastion of propriety and stability—
almost a poster boy for happy and uncomplicated Jewish
assimilation into the mainstream of American life.

The book is narrated by Roth’s most famous character outside of
Alexander Portnoy, Nathan Zuckerman, a writer and fictional alter
ego for Philip Roth. Levov was a boyhood hero of Zuckerman’s, a
role model due to his smooth navigation through almost every arena
for male competitiveness, from the sports field to the business
world. Zuckerman is intensely curious about Levov, and wants to
find out what this type of triumphant pastoral life is really like.

Zuckerman is given only a few firsthand glimpses behind Levov’s
smooth façade—and these encounters tell him little. It is not until he
runs into the Swede’s younger brother at a 45th year high school
reunion that Zuckerman begins to understand the story behind the
story. He comes to learn how the man who apparently “had it all”
became a tragic victim of circumstances beyond his control, facing
challenges that no amount of on-court footwork or off-court self-
discipline would overcome.

Much of the unsettling quality of this book derives from the
mismatch between Zuckerman’s entrenched image of the Swede, and
the realities of Levov’s life. ''I was wrong,'' Zuckerman announces at
one point. ''Never more mistaken about anyone in my life.'' Few
novels are more acute in revealing our propensity for seeing what
we want to see, and how reluctantly we recalibrate our vision in the
face of new learnings. In this regard, American Pastoral joins those
exquisite fictions of the past—
Emma, Bouvard et Pécuchet and The
Golden Bowl
come to mind—that force us into painful examination
of our stubborn insistence on deceiving ourselves.

Seymour (the Swede) Masin, the prototype for Swede Levov in
American Pastoral, was still alive when Roth’s novel was published
(although he subsequently died in 2005). Masin, who attended
Weequahic High School almost a decade before Roth, was New
Jersey shot put champion, captain of his college soccer team, and
selected as the best basketball player in the state. Masin himself
noted both the uncharacteristic aspect of this Roth protagonist, as
well as its vivid realism: “Roth portrayed me as a decent, good guy,
which I think is unusual for him to do.” Masin’s life evolved
differently than Levov, but the real-world Swede adds: "It's amazing,
but almost everything in the book I would have done if I'd been in
those situations."

The fictional Swede Levov, as it turns out, will find his pastoral
enjoyment of the American dream rudely interrupted by both
political and personal events. Roth adroitly mixes historical events
into his story, and though he has often found a way to infuse his
narratives with the resonance of period news items, he outdoes
himself in this instance. Levov watches on hopelessly as his daughter
Merry moves from a philosophical opposition to the Vietnam War
into more and more volatile reactions. In time, she embraces
violence as a means of countering violence. She is linked to a
bombing at a post office that kills an innocent bystander, and goes
underground to avoid arrest.

Levov’s attempts to find his daughter leave him exposed to
manipulation and exploitation. This once confident man, a walking
and talking exponent of the American Dream, is now enmeshed in
the worst aspects of the American nightmare of the turbulent 1960s.
But Roth tightens his noose even more. Levov needs to deal with an
unfaithful wife, his precarious health, race riots that impact his
glove factory, and—most horrifically—a reunion with his daughter
that only serves to plunge him more deeply into panic and confusion.

This is a brilliant novel on a grand scale. You can marvel here at the
most delicate effects—Levov’s visitor tour of his glove factory could
almost serve as a case study in how a great novelist handles the
smallest details with loving precision—but it is the big picture vision
that you will remember long after you have finished this panoramic
book. Other novelists may celebrate the American dream or dismiss
it a ruse, but Roth avoids both extremes in a nuanced work that
deconstructs our ideals and exposes their vulnerabilities, while still
keeping them intact. And if this doesn’t add up to the
The Great
American Novel
(which is coincidentally is the name of the book
Roth wrote the year he turned forty), it gets pretty darn close.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

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More to come


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