Tuesday, December 31, 2013

#70 - "American Pastoral" by Philip Roth

It's amazing how my reading pace can change from book to book. After a rather grueling time reading Possession, American Pastoral flew by. That's the difference in a book I really, really enjoyed versus one that was so-so, I guess. Philip Roth's second book from the list, and another Pulitzer Prize winner, was simply a great book.

Seymour Levov, known as "The Swede" to his classmates in high school, is the stereotypical big-man-on-campus. To those around him, he has it all; good looking, star football, baseball, and basketball player, and wealthy. His good fortune only continues as he graduates to adulthood, when he serves in the Marines at the tail end of World War II, inherits his father's successful glove business, and marries Miss New Jersey.

But when narrator and Roth alter ego Nathan Zuckerman attends his 45th high school reunion, he learns of his boyhood hero's tragic fate and how his beautiful American dream crumbled. Talking to the Swede's brother, he hears about his business-that-was, his broken marriage, and most recently, his death of prostate cancer at age 68.

How could it all end so tragically for somebody who seemingly had everything?

When Nathan hears about the Swede's daughter, Merry, he discovers the turning point in a once idyllic life. Having fallen in with a violent, anti-war movement in the late 60's, Merry blew up a post office in 1968, killing one, and spent her remaining years running from the law and continuing her terrorism.

American Pastoral has a sort of unique flow to it, one I find a little difficult to summarize here. Roth starts the novel with Zuckerman as narrator, telling the reader about the Swede's greatness in high school and his early successes. It is also through Zuckerman that we learn about his eventual demise and death. But early on in the novel, Roth abandons Zuckerman in favor of an omniscient narrator, and joins the Swede's life in the late 1950's, when everything is still going in his favor.

From then on, Zuckerman is never heard from again, as the new narrator takes the reader on a journey through Levov's life, as seen through his most personal and most tragic thoughts. It is at this point that the reader really gets to know who Seymour Levov is. For the rest of the book, virtually every single line of text is told through Seymour's experiences as he attempts to determine where it all went wrong for his daughter and later his family and life.

Following the explosion and subsequent disappearance of his daughter, Seymour tries to figure out why his daughter would become such a person. While she seemingly had every advantage in life one could ask for, it still all ended so horribly. Was it something he had done to his daughter, or failed to do for her? Was it something his wife had done?

Unable to contact his daughter he is never really able to answer these questions, and spends the rest of his life muddling through every detail of his life trying to assign blame to himself, his wife, his parents, to anybody.

For me, the book worked well on so many levels. Yes, the story was interesting, but it was the intimacy with which Roth writes that enabled me to develop such a deep connection with the characters, much the same way I felt reading about Scarlett O'Hara. And it's that connection that not only allowed me to become so sympathetic to Seymour Levov, but also so understanding of his thought process.

What made it even more interesting, is at the end of the day, Seymour Levov really is the great guy everybody in high school thought he was. He was the cool kid who was friends with the nerds. He was the wealthy man who was genuinely concerned about social injustices. He didn't have the tragic failings one might expect from such a downfall; he wasn't an alcoholic, he didn't beat his wife or children, and he was honest in all facets of his life. Really, he was the type of person we all wish we were more like. But yet it wasn't enough to avoid so many problems. And most tragically for him, he's never able to figure out why.

If there is a downside to this book, it might be how maddening the ending is. At the beginning of the book we learn that Seymour remarried and fathered three more children. As his life spirals down, I had assumed I would learn of his divorce, but when the novel ends, he's still married to his first wife, and Roth never explores how he moved from one life to another. It is never explained what happened to his fugitive daughter in the end, and we are never really given closure on his tragedy.

I suppose this speaks to how good the book is. If it hadn't been so gripping, I probably wouldn't be too concerned with this. But as it stands now, somewhere in the back of my mind, I'm hoping Philip Roth has a Seymour Levov sequel in the works. Unfortunately, in the front of my mind, I know he doesn't.

My next book is going to be The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow.

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