American Pastoral

( 66 )

Overview

As the American century draws to an uneasy close, Philip Roth gives us a novel of unqualified greatness that is an elegy for all our century's promises of prosperity, civic order, and domestic bliss. Roth's protagonist is Swede Levov, a legendary athlete at his Newark high school, who grows up in the booming postwar years to marry a former Miss New Jersey, inherit his father's glove factory, and move into a stone house in the idyllic hamlet of Old Rimrock. And then one day in ...

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American Pastoral

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Overview

As the American century draws to an uneasy close, Philip Roth gives us a novel of unqualified greatness that is an elegy for all our century's promises of prosperity, civic order, and domestic bliss. Roth's protagonist is Swede Levov, a legendary athlete at his Newark high school, who grows up in the booming postwar years to marry a former Miss New Jersey, inherit his father's glove factory, and move into a stone house in the idyllic hamlet of Old Rimrock. And then one day in 1968, Swede's beautiful American luck deserts him.

For Swede's adored daughter, Merry, has grown from a loving, quick-witted girl into a sullen, fanatical teenager—a teenager capable of an outlandishly savage act of political terrorism. And overnight Swede is wrenched out of the longer-for American pastoral and into the indigenous American berserk. Compulsively readable, propelled by sorrow, rage, and a deep compassion for its characters, this is Roth's masterpiece.

Symbolic of turbulent times of the 1960s, the explosion of a bomb in his own bucolic backyard sweeps away the innocence of Swede Levov, along with everything industriously created by his family over three generations in America. Unabridged. 14 CDs.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"One of Roth's most powerful novels ever...moving, generous and ambitious...a fiercely affecting work of art." —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Dazzling...a wrenching, compassionate, intelligent novel...gorgeous." —Boston Globe

"At once expansive and painstakingly detailed.... The pages of American Pastoral crackle with the electricity and zest of a first-rate mind at work." —San Francisco Chronicle

Albert Mobilio

Because in this, my one life, I can only spend so much time meditating upon Philip Roth's sexual hang-ups and identity issues, I've approached that ongoing self-obsession, which he regularly parses into novel-sized chunks, with wariness. Now along comes American Pastoral, a novel about three generations of family life and, in particular, the rupture between a father and daughter that embodies the social upheaval of the '60s. A big-picture book, it aspires to naturalist traditions that pit irresistible social forces against hapless souls. Clearly, this time around Roth wants to dodge the much-leveled charge of navel gazing.

At least as much as he can. American Pastoral successfully shoulders its weighty public theme of American optimism undone by a propensity for the extreme. It also rounds up Roth's usual subjects -- Jewish assimilation, bourgeois pretension and the shiksa's fatal allure. His perennial alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, can't help but make an appearance at his high school reunion. It was in high school during the 1940s that Zuckerman got to know Seymour Levov, a blond, supremely confidant athletic hero nicknamed "the Swede," upon whom the Jews of Newark heaped adoration. In his physical prowess and simple ease of being -- "no striving, no ambivalence, no doubleness" -- the Swede represented "a oneness with America" for these first- and second-generation immigrants.

After learning of Seymour's death at the reunion, Zuckerman decides to write about him. The golden boy of Weequahic took over his father's profitable business, married an Irish Catholic former Miss New Jersey and moved to a posh 100-acre spread far from decaying Newark. It's the postwar American dream, until he slams smack up against another pure product of America: To protest the Vietnam War, the Swede's teenage daughter blows up a small-town post-office, accidentally killing a popular local doctor. She goes into hiding for 25 years, during which time the Swede is tortured, first by not knowing how she is, and then by knowing all too well the madness that has consumed her life.

Roth's faithful, often piercing apprehension of the jagged emotional transactions between parent and child form this book's true achievement. (Perhaps, since it was revealed in Claire Bloom's recent memoir that Roth ordered her teenage daughter out of the house, the childless Roth wants to prove he knows from parenthood.) Sadly though, this is another novel by a marquee author that suffers from intimidated or inactive editors. There are long sections of conversation (one features the Swede's bulldog of a father interrogating his Catholic future daughter-in-law about anti-Semitism), that just go on and on. Structurally, the book is poorly shaped. Roth doesn't circle back to the 90-page preamble featuring Zuckerman, the ending feels arbitrary and the gratifying if bracing payoff that American Pastoral vigorously promises throughout is denied. But, if you want a Philip Roth book that isn't just another bulletin from his life, this one is that and more. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The protagonist of Roth's new novel, a magnificent meditation on a pivotal decade in our nation's history, is in every way different from the profane and sclerotic antihero of Sabbath's Theater (for which Roth won the National Book Award in 1995). It's as though, having vented his spleen and his libido in Mickey Sabbath, Roth was then free to contemplate the life of a man who is Sabbath's complete opposite. He relates the story of Seymour "Swede" Levov with few sex scenes and no scatological sideshows; the deviant behavior demonstrated here was common to a generation, and the shocks Roth delivers are part of our national trauma. This is Roth's most mature novel, powerful and universally resonant. Swede Levov's life has been charmed from the time he was an all-star athlete at Newark's Weequahic high school. As handsome, modest, generous and kind as he is gifted, Swede takes pains to acknowledge the blessings for which he is perceived as the most fortunate of men. He is patriotic and civically responsible, maritally faithful, morally upstanding, a mensch. He successfully runs his father's glove factory, refusing to be cowed by the race riots that rock Newark, marries a shiksa beauty-pageant queen, who is smart and ambitious, buys a 100-acre farm in a classy suburb-the epitome of serene, innocent, pastoral existence-and dotes on his daughter, Merry. But when Merry becomes radicalized during the Vietnam War, plants a bomb that kills an innocent man and goes underground for five years, Swede endures a torment that becomes increasingly unbearable as he learns more about Merry's monstrous life. In depicting Merry, Roth expresses palpable fury at the privileged, well-educated, self-centered children of the 1960s, who in their militant idealism demonstrated ferocious hatred for a country that had offered their families opportunity and freedom. After three generations of upward striving and success, Swede and his family are flung "out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy-into the fury, the violence and the desperation of the counterpastoral-into the American berserk." Roth's pace is measured. The first two sections of the book are richly textured with background detail. The last third, however, is full of shocking surprises and a message of existential chaos. "The Swede found out that we are all in the power of something demented,'' Roth writes. And again: "He had learned the worst lesson that life could teach-that it makes no sense." In the end, his dream and his life destroyed by his daughter and the decade, Swede finally understands that he is living through the moral breakdown of American society. The picture is chilling.
Kirkus Reviews
Roth's elegiac and affecting new novel, his 18th, displays a striking reversal of form—and content—from his most recent critical success, the Portnoyan Sabbath's Theater (1995).

Its narrator, however, is a familiar Rothian figure: writer Nathan Zuckerman (of The Ghost Writer, et al.)—and in case you're wondering whether he still seems to be his author's alter ego, Nathan is now in his early 60s, recovering from both cancer surgery and a longtime affair with an English actress. Essentially retired, Nathan is approached by a high-school classmate's older brother—and the well-remembered hero of his youth: Seymour "Swede" Levov, once a blue-eyed athletic and moral paragon who strode through life with ridiculous ease, now nearing 70 and crushed by outrageous misfortunes. Swede asks his help writing a tribute to his late father, and soon thereafter dies himself. Piqued by the enigma of a seemingly perfect life (superb health, a successful family business, marriage to a former beauty queen) inexplicably gone wrong, Zuckerman "dream[s] a realistic chronicle" that reconstructs Swede's life—compounded of information gleaned from others who knew him, and centering in the 1960s when Swede's life began to unravel. His only daughter Meredith ("Merry") had rebelled against her parents' and her culture's complacency, protested against the war in Vietnam, claimed responsibility for a terrorist bombing in which innocent people were killed, and gone "underground" as a fugitive. Most of the scenes Zuckerman/Roth imagines, therefore, are intensely emotional conversations in which the conflicting claims of social solidarity and individual integrity are debated with pained immediacy. Here, and in more conventionally expository authorial passages, meditativeness and discursiveness predominate over drama. Nevertheless, passion seethes through the novel's pages.

Some of the best pure writing Roth has done. And Swede Levov's anguished cry "What the hell is wrong with doing things right?" may be remembered as one of the classic utterances in American fiction.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375701429
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/28/1998
  • Series: Nathan Zuckerman Series
  • Edition description: Reprinted Edition
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 77,480
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Philip Roth

In 1997 Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House and in 2002 the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction. He has twice won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has won the PEN/Faulkner Award three times. In 2005 The Plot Against America received the Society of American Historians’ Prize for “the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003-2004.” Recently Roth received PEN’s two most prestigious awards: in 2006 the PEN/Nabokov Award and in 2007 the PEN/Bellow Award for achievement in American fiction. Roth is the only living American novelist to have his work published in a comprehensive, definitive edition by the Library of America. In 2011 he received the National Humanities Medal at the White House, and was later named the fourth recipient of the Man Booker International Prize.

Biography

Philip Roth's long and celebrated career has been something of a thorn in the side of the writer. As it is for so many, fame has been the proverbial double-edged sword, bringing his trenchant tragic-comedies to a wide audience, but also making him a prisoner of expectations and perceptions. Still, since 1959, Roth has forged along, crafting gorgeous variations of the Great American Novel and producing, in addition, an autobiography (The Facts) and a non-fictional account of his father's death (Patrimony: A True Story).

Roth's novels have been oft characterized as "Jewish literature," a stifling distinction that irks Roth to no end. Having grown up in a Jewish household in a lower-middle-class sub-section of Newark, New Jersey, he is incessantly being asked where his seemingly autobiographical characters end and the author begins, another irritant for Roth. He approaches interviewers with an unsettling combination of stoicism, defensiveness, and black wit, qualities that are reflected in his work. For such a high-profile writer, Roth remains enigmatic, seeming to have laid his life out plainly in his writing, but refusing to specify who the real Philip Roth is.

Roth's debut Goodbye, Columbus instantly established him as a significant writer. This National Book Award winner was a curious compendium of a novella that explored class conflict and romantic relationships and five short stories. Here, fully formed in Roth's first outing, was his signature wit, his unflinching insightfulness, and his uncanny ability to satirize his character's situations while also presenting them with humanity. The only missing element of his early work was the outrageousness he would not begin to cultivate until his third full-length novel Portnoy's Complaint -- an unquestionably daring and funny post-sexual revolution comedy that tipped Roth over the line from critically acclaimed writer to literary celebrity.

Even as Roth's personal relationships and his relationship to writing were severely shaken following the success of Portnoy's Complaint, he continued publishing outrageous novels in the vein of his commercial breakthrough. There was Our Gang, a parodic attack on the Nixon administration, and The Breast, a truly bizarre take on Kafka's Metamorphosis, and My Life as a Man, the pivotal novel that introduced Roth's literary alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman.

Zuckerman would soon be the subject of his very own series, which followed the writer's journey from aspiring young artist with lofty goals to a bestselling author, constantly bombarded by idiotic questions, to a man whose most important relationships have all but crumbled in the wake of his success. The Zuckerman Trilogy (The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, and The Counterlife) directly paralls Roth's career and unfolds with aching poignancy and unforgiving humor.

Zuckerman would later reemerge in another trilogy, although this time he would largely be relegated to the role of narrator. Roth's American Trilogy (I Married a Communist, the PEN/Faulkner Award winning The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America), shifts the focus to key moments in the history of late-20th –century American history.

In Everyman (2006) , Roth reaches further back into history. Taking its name from a line of 15th-century English allegorical plays, Everyman is classic Roth -- funny, tragic, and above all else, human. It is also yet another in a seemingly unbreakable line of critical favorites, praised by Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and The Library Journal.

In 2007's highly anticipated Exit Ghost, Roth returned Nathan Zuckerman to his native Manhattan for one final adventure, thus bringing to a rueful, satisfying conclusion one of the most acclaimed literary series of our day. While this may (or may not) be Zuckerman's swan song, it seems unlikely that we have seen the last Philip Roth. Long may he roar.

Good To Know

Before publishing his first novel, Roth wrote an episode of the suspenseful TV classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

A film adaptation of American Pastoral is currently in the works. Australian director Phillip Noyce (Rabbit Proof Fence; Patriot Games) is on board to direct.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Philip Milton Roth
    2. Hometown:
      Connecticut
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 19, 1933
    2. Place of Birth:
      Newark, New Jersey
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English, Bucknell University, 1954; M.A. in English, University of Chicago, 1955

Read an Excerpt

1

The Swede. During the war years, when I was still a grade school boy, this was a magical name in our Newark neighborhood, even to adults just a generation removed from the city's old Prince Street ghetto and not yet so flawlessly Americanized as to be bowled over by the prowess of a high school athlete. The name was magical; so was the anomalous face. Of the few fair-complexioned Jewish students in our preponderantly Jewish public high school, none possessed anything remotely like the steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask of this blue-eyed blond born into our tribe as Seymour Irving Levov.

The Swede starred as end in football, center in basketball, and first baseman in baseball. Only the basketball team was ever any good-twice winning the city championship while he was its leading scorer-but as long as the Swede excelled, the fate of our sports teams didn't matter much to a student body whose elders, largely undereducated and overburdened, venerated academic achievement above all else. Physical aggression, even camouflaged by athletic uniforms and official rules and intended to do no harm to Jews, was not a traditional source of pleasure in our community-advanced degrees were. Nonetheless, through the Swede, the neighborhood entered into a fantasy about itself and about the world, the fantasy of sports fans everywhere: almost like Gentiles (as they imagined Gentiles), our families could forget the way things actually work and make an athletic performance the repository of all their hopes. Primarily, they could forget the war.

The elevation of Swede Levov into the household Apollo of the Weequahic Jews can best be explained, I think, by the war against the Germans and the Japanese and the fears that it fostered. With the Swede indomitable on the playing field, the meaningless surface of life provided a bizarre, delusionary kind of sustenance, the happy release into a Swedian innocence, for those who lived in dread of never seeing their sons or their brothers or their husbands again.

And how did this affect him-the glorification, the sanctification, of every hook shot he sank, every pass he leaped up and caught, every line drive he rifled for a double down the left-field line? Is this what made him that staid and stone-faced boy? Or was the mature-seeming sobriety the outward manifestation of an arduous inward struggle to keep in check the narcissism that an entire community was ladling with love? The high school cheerleaders had a cheer for the Swede. Unlike the other cheers, meant to inspire the whole team or to galvanize the spectators, this was a rhythmic, foot-stomping tribute to the Swede alone, enthusiasm for his perfection undiluted and unabashed. The cheer rocked the gym at basketball games every time he took a rebound or scored a point, swept through our side of City Stadium at football games any time he gained a yard or intercepted a pass. Even at the sparsely attended home baseball games up at Irvington Park, where there was no cheerleading squad eagerly kneeling at the sidelines, you could hear it thinly chanted by the handful of Weequahic stalwarts in the wooden stands not only when the Swede came up to bat but when he made no more than a routine putout at first base. It was a cheer that consisted of eight syllables, three of them his name, and it went, Bah bah-bah! Bah bah bah . . . bah-bah! and the tempo, at football games particularly, accelerated with each repetition until, at the peak of frenzied adoration, an explosion of skirt-billowing cartwheels was ecstatically discharged and the orange gym bloomers of ten sturdy little cheerleaders flickered like fireworks before our marveling eyes . . . and not for love of you or me but of the wonderful Swede. "Swede Levov! It rhymes with . . . 'The Love'! . . . Swede Levov! It rhymes with . . . 'The Love'! . . . Swede Levov! It rhymes with . . . 'The Love'!"

Yes, everywhere he looked, people were in love with him. The candy store owners we boys pestered called the rest of us "Hey-you-no!" or "Kid-cut-it-out!"; him they called, respectfully, "Swede. Parents smiled and benignly addressed him as "Seymour. The chattering girls he passed on the street would ostentatiously swoon, and the bravest would holler after him, "Come back, come back, Levov of my life!" And he let it happen, walked about the neighborhood in possession of all that love, looking as though he didn't feel a thing. Contrary to whatever daydreams the rest of us may have had about the enhancing effect on ourselves of total, uncritical, idolatrous adulation, the love thrust upon the Swede seemed actually to deprive him of feeling. In this boy embraced as a symbol of hope by so many-as the embodiment of the strength, the resolve, the emboldened valor that would prevail to return our high school's servicemen home unscathed from Midway, Salerno, Cherbourg, the Solomons, the Aleutians, Tarawa-there appeared to be not a drop of wit or irony to interfere with his golden gift for responsibility.

But wit or irony is like a hitch in his swing for a kid like the Swede, irony being a human consolation and beside the point if you're getting your way as a god. Either there was a whole side to his personality that he was suppressing or that was as yet asleep or, more likely, there wasn't. His aloofness, his seeming passivity as the desired object of all this asexual lovemaking, made him appear, if not divine, a distinguished cut above the more primordial humanity of just about everybody else at the school. He was fettered to history, an instrument of history, esteemed with a passion that might never have been if he'd broken the Weequahic basketball record-by scoring twenty-seven points against Barringer-on a day other than the sad, sad day in 1943 when fifty-eight Flying Fortresses were shot down by Luftwaffe fighter planes, two fell victim to flak, and five more crashed after crossing the English coast on their way back from bombing Germany.

The Swede's younger brother was my classmate, Jerry Levov, a scrawny, small-headed, oddly overflexible boy built along the lines of a licorice stick, something of a mathematical wizard, and the January 1950 valedictorian. Though Jerry never really had a friendship with anyone, in his imperious, irascible way, he took an interest in me over the years, and that was how I wound up, from the age of ten, regularly getting beaten by him at Ping-Pong in the finished basement of the Levovs' one-family house, on the corner of Wyndmoor and Keer-the word "finished" indicating that it was paneled in knotty pine, domesticated, and not, as Jerry seemed to think, that the basement was the perfect place for finishing off another kid.

The explosiveness of Jerry's aggression at a Ping-Pong table exceeded his brother's in any sport. A Ping-Pong ball is, brilliantly, sized and shaped so that it cannot take out your eye. I would not otherwise have played in Jerry Levov's basement. If it weren't for the opportunity to tell people that I knew my way around Swede Levov's house, nobody could have got me down into that basement, defenseless but for a small wooden paddle. Nothing that weighs as little as a Ping-Pong ball can be lethal, yet when Jerry whacked that thing murder couldn't have been far from his mind. It never occurred to me that this violent display might have something to do with what it was like for him to be the kid brother of Swede Levov. Since I couldn't imagine anything better than being the Swede's brother-short of being the Swede himself-I failed to understand that for Jerry it might be difficult to imagine anything worse.

The Swede's bedroom-which I never dared enter but would pause to gaze into when I used the toilet outside Jerry's room-was tucked under the eaves at the back of the house. With its slanted ceiling and dormer windows and Weequahic pennants on the walls, it looked like what I thought of as a real boy's room. From the two windows that opened out over the back lawn you could see the roof of the Levovs' garage, where the Swede as a grade school kid practiced hitting in the wintertime by swinging at a baseball taped to a cord hung from a rafter-an idea he might have got from a baseball novel by John R. Tunis called The Kid from Tomkinsville. I came to that book and to other of Tunis's baseball books-Iron Duke, The Duke Decides, Champion's Choice, Keystone Kids, Rookie of the Year-by spotting them on the built-in shelf beside the Swede's bed, all lined up alphabetically between two solid bronze bookends that had been a bar mitzvah gift, miniaturized replicas of Rodin's "The Thinker." Immediately I went to the library to borrow all the Tunis books I could find and started with The Kid from Tomkinsville, a grim, gripping book to a boy, simply written, stiff in places but direct and dignified, about the Kid, Roy Tucker, a clean-cut young pitcher from the rural Connecticut hills whose father dies when he is four and whose mother dies when he is sixteen and who helps his grandmother make ends meet by working the family farm during the day and working at night in town at "MacKenzie's drugstore on the corner of South Main.'

The book, published in 1940, had black-and-white drawings that, with just a little expressionistic distortion and just enough anatomical skill, cannily pictorialize the hardness of the Kid's life, back before the game of baseball was illuminated with a million statistics, back when it was about the mysteries of earthly fate, when major leaguers looked less like big healthy kids and more like lean and hungry workingmen. The drawings seemed conceived out of the dark austerities of Depression America. Every ten pages or so, to succinctly depict a dramatic physical moment in the story-"He was able to put a little steam in it," "It was over the fence," "Razzle limped to the dugout"-there is a blackish, ink-heavy rendering of a scrawny, shadow-faced ballplayer starkly silhouetted on a blank page, isolated, like the world's most lonesome soul, from both nature and man, or set in a stippled simulation of ballpark grass, dragging beneath him the skinny statuette of a wormlike shadow. He is unglamorous even in a baseball uniform; if he is the pitcher, his gloved hand looks like a paw; and what image after image makes graphically clear is that playing up in the majors, heroic though it may seem, is yet another form of backbreaking, unremunerative labor.

The Kid from Tomkinsville could as well have been called The Lamb from Tomkinsville, even The Lamb from Tomkinsville Led to the Slaughter. In the Kid's career as the spark-plug newcomer to a last-place Brooklyn Dodger club, each triumph is rewarded with a punishing disappointment or a crushing accident. The staunch attachment that develops between the lonely, homesick Kid and the Dodgers' veteran catcher, Dave Leonard, who successfully teaches him the ways of the big leagues and who, "with his steady brown eyes behind the plate." shepherds him through a no-hitter, comes brutally undone six weeks into the season, when the old-timer is dropped overnight from the club's roster. "Here was a speed they didn't often mention in baseball: the speed with which a player rises-and goes down." Then, after the Kid wins his fifteenth consecutive game-a rookie record that no pitcher in either league has ever exceeded-he's accidentally knocked off his feet in the shower by boisterous teammates who are horsing around after the great victory, and the elbow injury sustained in the fall leaves him unable ever to pitch again. He rides the bench for the rest of the year, pinch-hitting because of his strength at the plate, and then, over the snowy winter-back home in Connecticut spending days on the farm and evenings at the drugstore, well known now but really Grandma's boy all over again-he works diligently by himself on Dave Leonard's directive to keep his swing level ("A tendency to keep his right shoulder down, to swing up, was his worst fault"), suspending a ball from a string out in the barn and whacking at it on cold winter mornings with "his beloved bat" until he has worked himself into a sweat. "'Crack . . .' The clean sweet sound of a bat squarely meeting a ball." By the next season he is ready to return to the Dodgers as a speedy right fielder, bats .325 in the second spot, and leads his team down to the wire as a contender. On the last day of the season, in a game against the Giants, who are in first place by only half a game, the Kid kindles the Dodgers' hitting attack, and in the bottom of the fourteenth-with two down, two men on, and the Dodgers ahead on a run scored by the Kid with his audacious, characteristically muscular baserunning-he makes the final game-saving play, a running catch smack up against the right center-field wall. That tremendous daredevil feat sends the Dodgers into the World Series and leaves him "writhing in agony on the green turf of deep right center." Tunis concludes like this: "Dusk descended upon a mass of players, on a huge crowd pouring onto the field, on a couple of men carrying an inert form through the mob on a stretcher . . . There was a clap of thunder. Rain descended upon the Polo Grounds." Descended, descended, a clap of thunder, and thus ends the boys' Book of Job.

I was ten and I had never read anything like it. The cruelty of life. The injustice of it. I could not believe it. The reprehensible member of the Dodgers is Razzle Nugent, a great pitcher but a drunk and a hothead, a violent bully fiercely jealous of the Kid. And yet it is not Razzle carried off "inert" on a stretcher but the best of them all, the farm orphan called the Kid, modest, serious, chaste, loyal, naive, undiscourageable, hard-working, soft-spoken, courageous, a brilliant athlete, a beautiful, austere boy. Needless to say, I thought of the Swede and the Kid as one and wondered how the Swede could bear to read this book that had left me near tears and unable to sleep. Had I had the courage to address him, I would have asked if he thought the ending meant the Kid was finished or whether it meant the possibility of yet another comeback. The word "inert" terrified me. Was the Kid killed by the last catch of the year? Did the Swede know? Did he care? Did it occur to him that if disaster could strike down the Kid from Tomkinsville, it could come and strike the great Swede down too? Or was a book about a sweet star savagely and unjustly punished-a book about a greatly gifted innocent whose worst fault is a tendency to keep his right shoulder down and swing up but whom the thundering heavens destroy nonetheless-simply a book between those "Thinker" bookends up on his shelf?

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Table of Contents

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Reading Group Guide

1. What is the effect of being told the story through Zuckerman? Are we led to believe aspects of the story are a projection of Zuckerman's fantasies about a character who caught his imagination?

2. Zuckerman sees the Swede's life as an illustration of the Jewish "desire to go the limit in America with your rights, forming yourself as an ideal person who gets rid of the traditional Jewish habits and attitudes, who frees himself of the pre-America insecurities and the old, constraining obsessions so as to live unapologetically as an equal among equals" [p. 85]. How does Roth illustrate this thought? The Swede tries very hard to form himself as this ideal person. Does the story imply that such a life, such a reinvention of the self, is ultimately impossible?

3. There could hardly be two more different personality types than the Swede and his brother, Jerry. What do Jerry's positive traits tell us about the Swede's negative ones? Why have the two of them chosen such different paths?

4. Does Lou Levov appear to be a benign or a negative influence on his sons' lives? How, if at all, has he contributed in making the Swede what he is?

5. The passionate kiss that the Swede gave Merry when she was eleven was a once-in-a-lifetime transgression. "Never in his entire life, not as a son, a husband, a father, even as an employer, had he given way to anything so alien to the emotional rules by which he was governed" [p. 91]. Later the Swede fears that this moment precipitated the infinite anger of her teenage years. Is this conclusion erroneous? What does it reveal?

6. The Swede believes that the political radicalism professed by Merry and Rita Cohen is nothing but "angry, infantile egoism thinly disguised as identification with the oppressed" [p. 134]. Is the answer as simple as that? How genuine is Merry's identification with the oppressed? Are her political arguments convincing?

7. What effect did the experience of watching, as a child, the self-immolation of the Buddhist monks have upon Merry? Does her reaction seem unusual to you? Did it affect what happened to her later?

8. What effect do all the details about the glove trade have upon the narrative? How do they illuminate the story?

9. Do you believe Merry when she says that she doesn't know Rita Cohen? If she is telling the truth, who might Rita Cohen be? What is her function within the story?

10. The Swede planned his life to be picture perfect, and he lived that life until it turned dark and violent. Was his life the essential American Dream, or was it a nightmare rather than a pastoral? What comment does the novel's title make upon the story it tells?

11. What are Merry's feelings for America? What are her feelings for her parents? How are the two connected?

12. Merry's stuttering began to disappear when she worked with dynamite. What emotional purpose did Merry's stuttering serve, and why was she able to leave the handicap behind her when she left home?

13. When the Swede calls Jerry to ask for his advice, he is treated to a diatribe. "What's the matter with you?" Jerry asks. "You're acceding to her the way you acceded to your father, the way you have acceded to everything in your life" [p. 273]. Is Jerry right? Should the Swede force Merry to come home? Why does the Swede refuse Jerry's offer to come get Merry himself?

14. Why does Merry, when she becomes a Jain, choose to settle in the neighborhood of her father's factory in Newark?

15. Does Dawn, in reinventing herself after Merry's disappearance, seem ruthless to you, or do you sympathize with her struggle for personal survival? When she tells Bill Orcutt that she always hated the Old Rimrock house, is she telling the truth? And is she telling the truth when she claims she is glad that she didn't become Miss America?

16. Describing his brother, Jerry says, "In one way he could be conceived as completely banal and conventional. An absence of negative values and nothing more. Bred to be dumb, built for convention, and so on" [p. 65]. Is this how you see Swede Levov by the end of the novel? Does he depart from banality and convention?

17. "His great looks, his larger-than-lifeness, his glory, our sense of his having been exempted from all self-doubt by his heroic role—that all these manly properties had precipitated a political murder made me think of the compelling story...of Kennedy" [p. 83]. In what ways do American Pastoral's political metaphors reflect the story of mid-century America? Why might they be presented through a Kennedy-like figure?

18. The Swede" had learned the worst lesson that life can teach—that it makes no sense." What leads him to this conclusion? Did his life in fact make no sense?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 66 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 66 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 12, 2006

    Worthy of the Pulitzer

    American Pastoral is the background for one seemingly idyllic family in post-war and Vietnam-era America. The story intertwines the love story of an All-American high school football star Swede Levov and a ravishing, determined former Miss New Jersey Dawn Dwyer. Together they weave the perfect romance, buying a country home in rural, Revolutionary-era New Jersey, fusing religious differences between their families, and raising a child who seems to be the culmination of the construction of an insurmountable family fortress. But from the novel's opening in present day, misconception runs rampant throughout the storyline. The novel's shifting narrator initially encounters the older Swede Levov, and quickly compiles in his mind what must be this successful businessman's and laudable family man's history, only to find the exact opposite. Amid the turbulent sixties, it seems the rearing of the Levov's daughter, Merry, has gone amiss, not by any doing of their own, but from external intangibilities. At the age of 16, Merry systematically blows up the local market, killing one prominent resident and sending her own family into turmoil. She flees, and it seems that the Levovs cannot combat the grief and despair which is the fallout not only of their daughter's alienation and abandon, but also (later) of her being adament to blame her seemingly ideal and serene upbringing as the catalyst for her rebellion. Philip Roth brings into question both sides of this argument: the utter irrationality of Merry's actions, and Swede Levov's vain attempt to reason and pinpoint his daughter's deviance. The alteration in the narrative between flashback times of peace, a congenial family, his utter devotion to his wife...and current ones of despair, psychologically estranged friends, and a static lifestyle, seem to tear Swede Levov in two. The novel explores our desires for the ordered life and its consequences, the validity of trying to maintain such a lifestyle in spite of unassailable corruption, and the worth of the trust we place in our friends, family, and selves. In many ways, the novel is a progression distrust (nearly incorrect and inoperable paranoia), where irrevocably, every relationship and institution in which Swede Levov has found consolation is challenged, if not wholly destroyed. By the end of Roth's sweeping and panoramic achievement, we get a sense that it is the Levovs ideal life at fault...their want to uphold the American dream, to love each other, protect each other from harm, live a life merely amongst themselves, on the surface, not ignorant of the world, but content with themselves. At its core, American Pastoral questions the very epitomy of existence and contentment which we idealize, and its flawed impregnability. There is nothing much more tragic than the exact opposite outcome of what a life of protective diligence has attempted to immortalize, yet that is the subject matter of this novel. A tremendous work.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 11, 2013

    Good, but nowhere near Roth's best. I am suprised this is herald

    Good, but nowhere near Roth's best.
    I am suprised this is heralded by many as Roth's masterpiece. I think it is far from it. The book is good, don't get me wrong. If written as a debut novel, the author would be jettisoned into Frazen-like popularity. It's good, it's good, it's all good. But, as much as I may have wanted to, I couldn't say it's great. Because it's simply good.
    The characters are interesting but not revolutionary. The prose is great, but not as sharp as Sabbath or Nemesis. So much about the novel is good. So. Much. But it's not his masterpiece.
    I will say. This book has one particular joke that made me laugh harder than anything I've ever read. It is simultaneously the worst and funniest thing that ink ever put on paper.  I shan't ruin it here though. I shall only say it regards circumcision and the priesthood. 

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2013

    Gorgeous, beautiful writing

    Roth is truly a madter of his craft. One of the top 5 modern American writers and American Pastorale seals the deal. Gorgeous prose.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 7, 2012

    I had a little bit of trouble getting into this book at first. I

    I had a little bit of trouble getting into this book at first. I knew that it had won a Pulitzer and had read one other book by Phillip Roth (Indignation) which was very good. Eventually I got totally involved in American Pastoral and couldn't put it down. A huge amount of thinking and effort went into this project by Roth. It's full of poignant, vivid descriptions, excellent and thorough character development and lots of wisdom. Loved that! He has an amazing vocabulary and used many words foreign to me. But I know from taking lots of lit classes that not every word unknown to the reader needs clarification. You most likely will get the meaning anyway. When I got to the last chapter, the dinner party, I started to get a little worried as to why I was so near to the end of the book before certain things were left unsettled. As the chapter moved on it seemed even more surprising. Finally, at the end, the unsettled things were settled. But settled in such a way that it felt hurried and sudden. I can't help but wonder if others felt this way. I really did not like the ending. Otherwise I would have given it 5 stars. I actually slammed the book shut.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 15, 2011

    I was so disappointed

    I have been a Philip Roth fan all of my life. Since Portnoy's Complaint, When She Was Good, Goodbye Columbus... this book is absolutely nowhere near it. The first 80 or so pages are downright boring; the narrative is OK and shows experience in writing, but the characters are oddly disengaging and, frankly, I don't feel anything for the Swede, Jerry, Merry or any of the cast of characters. Nothing. Like a blank. Or an empty space. I truly would not recommend it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2009

    Very interesting narrator

    This book managed to focus on the theme of the political and social upheaval of the late 1960's and early 1970's without coming across as cliche or a mere rehashing of things that have already been said.

    Roth is very fair to the characters. I think he portrays the nuances of the older generation quite well rather than relying on the stereotypes that are often used in films and books exploring this time period.

    I found the writing style very accessible and enjoyable. His characters were well developed and he kept my attention throughout the novel. His focus on the glove industry reminded me of Melville's focus on whaling in Moby Dick.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 7, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    American Pastoral provides a thorough view of the successes and painful undercurrents which ran it's course through one truly American family.

    The title of Dave Eggers "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" may have coined the phrase which may best describe this monumental novel. All of us have had a Swede Lenov (Roth's protagonist) touch our lives at some point. Swede is the American "everyman", whose successes are carried humbly through his life until he experiences a dismantling of which he was unprepared to ever comprehend. Roth expertly crafts this story using sketches of his secondary characters in a manner which delivers essential facts yet doesn't explore them any more than necessary.

    This book has joined my list of favorites, and ranked highly among them.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2007

    Incredible....

    I became immersed in this book and read it in one week. Each character is so different, yet Roth points to their strengths and weaknesses in his successful effort to unite them in one multi-dimentional reality. The wordiness is necessary and ingenious. Roth, by drawing you into conversations and thoughts, brings you as close as an author can bring you to the characters and their perceptions. It's a great book that will grab and take hold of you until you are finished reading. Then, it'll stay with you for certain.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 14, 2005

    Worthy of the pulitzer!

    Long winded? Yes. Detailed? Yes. However if you love excellent character development along with a magnificent story line, this book is for you. Intelligent and empathetic, this is a masterpiece worthy of reading again and again!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 31, 2004

    One of Roth's best

    This is one of Roth's best books and by far his best treatment of the American dream . The whole story of as one reader - reviewer says here of a person who does everything right, and yet whose life comes out wrong is a kind of moral message for many of us. There is much pain and beauty in this work, and one incredibly moving and funny set- piece , that of the high- school reunion with the veterans parading their trophies and bandages that makes for great reading. There is too a little much dutiful description of the leather industry and also a bit too much of a life going from one crisis- transformation to another . It may be true to reality, but does anyone have the patience to follow reality in all its details. Nonetheless one of Roth's best and most insightful in understanding the complex American worlds of the late twentieth century.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2013

    Best Roth

    Heartbreaking

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2012

    Disjointed, hard to follow

    While some of the plot lines were interesting, the style of writing was boring. Get to the point! You are in the middle of a paragraph then it takes off in another direction, back story, back in the past. I have never read a book that put me to sleep as often as this one did.
    I guess I'm missing something.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2012

    interestin

    not bad at all

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2012

    Must-read

    One of my favorite books.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2010

    A waste of time

    Much too wordy. The story could have been told in a golden book. Does he think his readers are so dense as to not understand his simple command of the language. So redundent for such a simple tale.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2007

    OK, so confusing and sloppy is brilliant now? Whatever...

    I could not wait to be finished with this tiresome book which took far too many words to repeatedly hammer out the same tired thoughts over and over and over again! I did find the whole glove-making history interesting, however, and the Levov family will occupy my thoughts for a short while. I HATED the way it alternated at will and without logic between the first and third person POV, and sometimes the first persons were different people and I had to guess who it was! Why did Zuckerman disappear? Too confusing for us mere mortals. I guess when you're an established 'great American writer' you can be so self-indulgent. I fail to see the touted greatness of this book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 28, 2005

    a little wordy but an excellent character analysis

    A very good character analysis of the person nicknamed 'The Swede,' and an excellent portrayal of how the nineteen-sixties affected his perfect but average American family. Roth's prose is exquisitely detailed, although a little wordy. We certainly don't need to know every detail of glove manufacturing, although it must be said that Roth is nowhere near as bad as Saul Bellow. But the wordiness is only a minor quibble over an otherwise excellent book, full of psychological richness, and giving us as much insight into our own characters as we can bear.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 19, 2003

    Great story - a little Long-Winded

    Roth's novel American Pastoral is a very interesting story - I love how he makes the story just an exaggeration. The main character The Swede is the narrator's childhood hero, and once they meet up after 50 years the narrator makes up a story about how his life probably was. The story of the Swede is a direct illustration that childhood heros will remain omnipotent if the hero doesn't break the illusion of perfection. The narrator's illusion was crushed, thus, the story of the Swede's imperfect American Pastoral comes to light. Roth did a great job - but I have to give only four stars because he oftentimes dragged on and on when a simple paragraph would have been sufficient (he instead would take three pages). Besides that, I would definately recommend American Pastoral and I think it would be great to see someone's interpretation on film!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 29, 2003

    Brilliant

    Through Roth's narrator, 'American Pastoral' tells us the tragic story of one New Jersey family. By turns hilarious and horrific, the novel deals with the inability of anyone to truly understand anyone else.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 8, 2002

    Loved the Story - Disliked the Prose

    It is hard not to appreciate the aspects of America after reading this book. Roth painted gutwrenchingly clear pictures of American Life; the power and the powerlessness of love, the inherent beauty in the freedom to pursue our own destiny, and the bleak pictures of dreams not coming true. The feelings the novel evokes touch a deeper part of our souls - of what's important, our anger at injustice and our hatred for what isn't right in this world. The single criticism I have of this work is the prose. At times it is hard to digest, two rambling scenes could have made their point without their length, and the narrative piece never circled back to the narrator. In retrospect, however, for lovers of America, the story is worth the reader's time.

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