American Pastoral

I remember the day I purchased this book. I told the clerk at Borders, “I don’t need a bag,” and I just let the receipt hang out of the top so the security guard at the North Avenue store didn’t suspect me of thievery. I mean, when you have the “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” badge on the front of a book you own, you want people to be able to see it. What’s the point of hiding it in a plastic bag that’s going to sit in a landfill for decades?

Well, it took about two years to actually get up the nerve to read it because I figured it was going to take energy, and I was correct. This is the story of Swede Levov. He was a superstar high school athlete in New Jersey and went on to successfully run the family business. He achieved tremendous wealth, had a beautiful wife, and was an upstanding citizen in the community. He appeared to have it all, but the dude had big problems.

In the retelling of this man’s fictional life, Roth explores issues of race, religion, class, gender, politics, aging, and infidelity…among others. He explores these issues by observing the Swede’s tragic life from various perspectives and through the conversations that the Swede and his friends and family have. The timeframe is roughly from the Swede’s high school graduation in 1945 to the 1990’s. I didn’t find much happiness or humor, but I was certainly moved.

The book revolves around a moment in 1968 when the Swede’s daughter blows up the local post office. The what and why this happened underpin much of the book, but the moment is not retold directly nor is it the climax. Roth employs many vehicles to flush things out and splits the book into three distinct parts. In Part I, titled “Paradise Remembered,” you see things from the first-person perspective of Nathan Zuckerman, a family friend and writer who grew up with the Levov’s. In Part II, titled “The Fall,” it leaves Zuckerman and switches to a third-person narrative with much reflection by the Swede. And finally, Roth brings things to a raging climax in Part III, titled “Paradise Lost.” It mostly centers on a marathon dinner party at the Levov’s that is reminiscent of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in its length, acidity, and pure domestic evil.

I wouldn’t really call it entertainment, and it was a little heavier than I wanted after a break from reading for about three months while my wife and I moved. But it makes you think and wonder and ruminate, and may change your perspective on some controversial subjects.