Sunday, June 17, 2007

American Pastoral

Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth's alter ego is back, this time to tell us about his boyhood hero, the gifted high school athlete Seymour Levov. Levov, who because of his blond good looks became known as "The Swede," seemed to have it all to the young Nathan Zuckerman who admired him from afar. Even as an adult, Nathan vividly recalled the time when, surrounded by a group of his young friends who were watching the high school boys at football practice, "Swede" Levov called his name and joked about the beating he was taking on the field. Nathan became the envy of his crowd simply because "Swede" Levov knew his name and treated him as an equal, a feeling he would never forget.

But, as they always do, things change. Boys grow up and become men with families, jobs and responsibilities that often taken them far from their home towns. Nathan Zuckerman assumed that "The Swede" grew into the life for which he had seemed destined, a life that would be the envy of all who knew him. And, on the surface, it appeared that Zuckerman was right about that. "Swede" Levov, one time Marine drill sergeant, married Miss New Jersey 1949 and eventually took over and successfully ran his father's glove manufacturing business. It was only years later, when accomplished writer Nathan Zuckerman met successful businessman Seymour Levov by chance in Yankee Stadium, that Zuckerman began to understand that Levov's life was not all it appeared to be.

In fact, "Swede" Levov, barely hanging on to the life he had made for himself, his wife and his only child, was obsessed with trying to figure out exactly where he had gone wrong. Was it his fault that his daughter's hatred of Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War turned her into more than just another war protester? Could he have done something, anything, to prevent her from evolving into the bomb planting terrorist that she became? Those were the questions that he lived with every day after Merry Levov planted a bomb in the post office of her own small hometown, a bomb that killed a local doctor who had stopped on his way to the local hospital to pick up his mail in the otherwise deserted post office.

The first part of American Pastoral, narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, captures the optimism and excitement that describes America during the years just before and after World War II, a time when anything seemed possible for those who wanted it badly enough. But the heart of the book begins when the reader is rather painfully taken into "Swede" Levov's head and made witness to his innermost thoughts and doubts about himself. We watch Levov torture himself about all the "what ifs" and "could have beens" in his past as he lives with his constant desire to find his daughter so that she can prove her "innocence" to the world. Sadly, he only gets one part of his wish.

Philip Roth did a remarkable job of recreating a troubling period in recent American history, the decade of the sixties during which many young, naive people saw violence as the only way to protest what they perceived to be an unjust war in Viet Nam. With Seymour Levov, Roth created a character that I will remember for a long time. However, I'm starting to wonder if anyone dares to edit Philip Roth these days because American Pastoral would have been even more powerful without the repetitiveness that characterizes its last hundred or so pages.

Ron Silver does his usual superb job in the audio version of this book, a 14-disc, 16-hour experience.

Rated at: 3.5


  1. I picked a Roth novel for one of my challenges, Everyman. Have you read that one?

  2. I have, Dewey. It's a lot shorter and I had little problem identifying with with the main character since it's about how a man ages, complete with some pretty detailed descriptions of all that's involved both physically and mentally. Not a real cheerful novel, but one that I found meaningful.

  3. I have had American Pastoral on my list forever (it sits on my shelf and mocks me!). Maybe I should get the audio version--sounds good, and I can listen while carpooling...thanks for the review!

  4. I would recommend the audio book version if you are like me and sometimes lose patience with a book that seems to go on forever while offering nothing new. I might have quit reading the printed version with 200 pages to go, but Ron Silver is such a good reader that he kept me interested.

  5. I tried American Pastoral (in a 1990s attempt to decide whether there was a "GreatER American Novel" than The Great Gatsby. It didn't cut it! De Lillo's Underworld came close, but he blew it in the desert somewhere about 3/4 of the way through! And Franzen's The Corrections wasa bit try-hard and not quite systemically observant enough.

    And I never finished American Pastoral...I just didn't like it!

  6. Sally, I'm a Philip Roth fan but I've been disappointed in two of the last three of his novels that I've read. I think that he's somewhat living on his reputation these days and I can't imagine why American Pastoral won the prize that it won. I seriously doubt I would have finished any version of it other than the audio book one...and that, as I said above, only because of Ron Silver's great delivery.