American Pastoral: As Striking a Portrait of the Middle Class as Ever Existed


Excuse me while I gather myself. American Pastoral is a slow burn with bountiful excursions down rabbit trails that really have no necessary meaning to the story itself. In a way, it is the only novel I’ve read that approaches the wacky writing of Dostoevsky (in the words of Hemingway: “How does someone who writes so poorly make me feel so much?”), by which I mean that Roth’s style is meandering, often with short conversations resulting in pages upon pages of text that lets the reader know every single detail of every memory that possibly comes into a character’s head. As a result there are moments in which a reader can be greatly frustrated with the text, encountering backstory after backstory of characters one can never be certain are even important to the piece as a whole. Yet, identically to Dostoevsky, when suddenly, as if by magic, Roth is on, what was once tedious becomes impossible to get enough of. Every word becomes as important as the last utterance of a family member on their death bed. In American Pastoral, these Dostoevskian moments pieced together form a novel that is perhaps worthy of being declared the great American novel.

In the same way that the Coen Brothers’ film, Fargo, tags itself with the phrase, “A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere,” American Pastoral can likely be tagged, “A lot can happen to no one.” Roth’s protagonist, Seymour “Swede” Levov is a classic American man: captain of the football team, joined the marines, married a beauty queen, took over his father’s business, and started his own plans for a nuclear family beginning with a daughter. And it is these classic elements, almost prototypical checklists for the American Dream, that function to cement Swede Levov as just another successful nobody. By doing nothing but following the instructions of his father and the blueprint for happiness, Swede lives out his life as an inherently neutral person, minding his own business and making sure to keep his nose out of other’s. Yet this all comes crashing down when his daughter, Merry, who had been increasingly outspoken and ferocious in her opposition to the war in Vietnam, blows up a local post office and general store, killing a man in the process. What is chronicled in the pages of American Pastoral is Swede’s subsequent life following Merry’s act of terrorism and quick disappearance.

Swede can barely hear two sentences from someone without thinking about Merry and just where it all went wrong with her. The basic problem Swede has, however, is that absolutely nothing went wrong. He gave her everything she could have ever wanted. In his flashbacks that occur through the novel it becomes apparent that he let her rant and call him a racist and a capitalist pig who sells his workers out for profit and “unjustly owns the means of production.” And  often Swede has absolutely no clue what Merry is talking about, he does not even begin to understand what she is so upset about when he makes sure she knows that he agrees with what he can comprehend from her tirades. Feeling like he has no other choice but to cling to a hope, he chalks her rants up to being a phase. A phase in which she reads The Communist Manifesto and falls in with Alice Palmer on the weekends. Most of their disconnect hinges on Vietnam war, and whether or not it is good enough to be against it, or if more should be done. When Merry lobs linguistic grenades at Swede that contain the words “privilege” and “pig bastard” Swede has no idea how to take it beyond washing his hands of her ideology and then wondering how it all went wrong.

And that is the pure brilliance of American Pastoral. Within the relationship between Swede, the Liberal All-American Middle Class Male, and Merry, the leftist bent on revolution, Philip Roth contains and comments upon the entire American political spectrum. What makes the novel a work of genius is how utterly neutral Roth stays throughout it, despite the fact that in the first 100 pages we are made excruciatingly aware of the fact that this is the writing of Skip Zuckerman, not Philip Roth. That Zuckerman maintains his voice without infecting the way the characters’ opinions are given is masterful. Any disagreement a person has with anything a character in this novel says comes purely from the person reading. Reading American Pastoral with an open mind is to be pulled in so many directions from so many well-thought out perspectives that it is nearly maddening. As you read you get the same inkling that occurs when reading Dostoevsky, even when you enjoy it; the inkling: what the hell is this even about? Yet the novel keeps going beyond all thought possible. Swede has so many normal things to say, yet all of them read as if they are a revelation in this chaotic world. Merry’s bogus life truly is, in some moments, the correct way to live by pure ideology.

American Pastoral, at its best, captures a maddening and infuriating perversity that is at the core of America, namely that our values are unreachable. That doing everything right, living the American way and achieving the Dream, still ends in utter despair. Nothing one can do is good enough, and this is what Swede cannot cope with, nor can Merry accept. It is brilliant in all aspects, from its humor to its wrenching sadness. A masterpiece.

Recommended to: Those that have wondered what it would be like if Dostoevsky was an American.

Avoid as if it is a wholesome church super bowl party where the commercials are being skipped: This is exactly the sort of novel that seems absolutely pointless if you read it for plot and plot alone. There is no plot, just a frame of reference that masquerades as one. If you need that guiding force, then this one is not for you.


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