American Pastoral by Philip Roth – a review
A taster: this section comes at a meeting between the narrator and the Swede, a former ballplayer and one of his boyhood heroes:
I was impressed as the meal wore on, by how assured he seemed of everything commonplace he said, and how everything he said was suffused by his good nature. I kept waiting for him to lay bare something more than this pointed unobjectionableness, but all that rose to the surface was more surface. What he had instead of a being, I thought, is blandness – the guy’s radiant with it. He has devised for himself an incognito, and the incognito has become him. Several times during the meal I didn’t think I was going to make it, didn’t think I’d get to dessert if he was going to keep praising his family . . . until I began to wonder if it wasn’t that he was incognito but that he was mad.
Something was on top of him that had called a halt to him. Something had turned him into a human platitude. Something had warned him: You must not run counter to anything.
The Swede is handsome and bourgeois, a hard-working ex-athlete, a glove manufacturer with everything going his way until he arrives in the 1960s and is overwhelmed by the forces of social disorder. Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s narrator, decides to imagine the Swede’s life by inhabiting the man’s mind. And the Swede really does have everything, Dawn, his wife, the former Miss New Jersey, his lovely home in the conservative suburbs of Old Rimrock, and his teenage daughter, Merry, who leaves the house one morning and blows up the local post office before disappearing as a fugitive terrorist.
And it is around this central event, this major metaphor, that Roth leads us to see the ripples that flow outward, affecting the lives of the Swede and his wife, his, extended family, parents and sibling, his friends and neighbours, and not least his daughter, Merry.
The writer reveals to us our total vulnerability, how one step over a boundary fundamental to civilized life has repercussions liable to demolish the whole facade. He spells out the frailty and enfeeblement of the world we have built, in the process giving us a cultural horror-story which, nevertheless, rings absolutely true.