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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