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Reflections of a working writer and reader

 

 

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.

2 Responses to “American Pastoral by Philip Roth – a review”

  1. […] Patrick wrote an interesting post today on Here’s a quick excerpt 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 … […]

  2. danny thorpe says:

    I first read ‘Portnoys Complaint’ about twenty five years ago. I was impressed. I re-read it two months ago (still impressed) and realised I hadn’t delved into anything else he had written, not even Goodbye Columbus.. And so seeing ‘American Pastoral’ had been deemed worthy of a Nobel Prize I didn’t resist. I wish I had. Verbose almost to extinction, he seemed too pleased with the sound of his own word processor. I ploughed on not really wanting to know that much about tanning, or the glove industry. Yes, I understand what you are telling me, but why not do it in a tenth of the time. Have you forgotten that the first rule of any writer is that you must make sure your readers turns the page. When I got to the conversations with daughter, I skipped. When it got to Rita,I deleted it. I could not stand it any more. How this was worthy of a Noble I do not know. Pretentious nonsense. In the film Tootsie Bill Murray’s character say’s ” I want to write a play, for only people who come in out of the rain” Philip Roth has managed the book.