American Pastoral
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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.

Philip Roth's 22nd book takes a life-long view of the American experience in this thoughtful investigation of the century's most divisive and explosive of decades, the '60s. Returning again to the voice of his literary alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, Roth is at the top of his form. His prose is carefully controlled yet always fresh and intellectually subtle as he reconstructs the halcyon days, circa World War II, of Seymour "the Swede" Levov, a high school sports hero and all-around Great Guy who wants nothing more than to live in tranquillity. But as the Swede grows older and America crazier, history sweeps his family inexorably into its grip: His own daughter, Merry, commits an unpardonable act of "protest" against the Vietnam war that ultimately severs the Swede from any hope of happiness, family, or spiritual coherence.

Customer Reviews:

  • An Indictment of Dreams
    This brilliant work of Art has many themes. It resonated with me as an examination of dreams because I am of the generation of the Swede's daughter, Merry, and because I knew the dream of his generation through my parents and the adults I knew growing up. So I can look at the dreams of two generations of Americans through Roth's eyes and through my own. My conclusion is that the emotional power of this novel for me is almost unprecedented.

    Unlike some reviewers, I like the Swede very much. I don't know how I would have felt about him when I was young, and, like his daughter, intolerant of the love and dedication his generation had for what America had accomplished up to that time. But today, examining his values through the prism of my own life experience, I respect him greatly.

    There were times when I hated Roth for what he put the Swede through. The Swede is almost like Job: a righteous man tested beyond the breaking point for no reason other than the examination of his values. Do his values stand the test? It seems to me that our dreams, like our hopes, are not to be carefully compared to the facts of our existence to determine their validity. If the Swede's dream is thus examined, it fails the test of reality dismally. On the other hand, as a dream, it is beautiful. The power of this novel for me is in Roth's even-handed and masterful portrayal of the Swede's love of his prosaic life. There is incredible beauty in a life well lived as portrayed with great respect by the normally irreverent Philip Roth. Whatever else this novel is, it is a great work of Art.

    The greatest criticism this novel makes of the Swede is that he does not stop to examine and dissect life. He just lives it. He always tries to make the best of it. The novel could be read as an indictment of the philosophy of trying to make the best of everything and everyone we ecounter in life. On a personal level, this idea would resonate with me. But the Swede is such an attractive, archetypal representative of this philosophy that I found myself rooting for him. For me, the book does ultimately vindicate the Swede's approach to life. Certainly the representatives of the alternative point of view are much less attractively protrayed than the Swede. So maybe the lesson is that we all lose to life in the end. The test of how well we have lived is not in the ending but in the living itself. This test the Swede passes. A lovely, sad, powerful novel....more info
  • an essential novelist
    Few US writers nowadays take on the subject of America in their writing and make it work. Roth is clearly at the tail end of the generation of the Great American Novelist, a writer who writes as much about the character of the United States of America as he writes about the characters in his books. Don DeLillo (Falling Man: A Novel, Underworld: A Novel and White Noise) is something of this, but DeLillo's concerns are more of the intellectual background of the US rather than its character.

    But this book takes on the evolution of America full force--Swede seemed to be an idyllic American. The son of a glovemaker, he was a Varsity letterman and an idol in high school who married Miss New Jersey and seemed destined to be the center of idolatry.

    But of course, Swede has to fall, and his fall is as much about the evolution of America as it is the exploitation of his fall. His daughter goes from daddy's little girl to a terrorist/activist responsible for four murders. And from there, Swede's life starts to fall apart, and I mean in every way imaginable. This seems almost expected, but Roth takes this crumbling to some of its deepest psychological and emotional levels. Unlike Yates' Revolutionary Road, Roth makes you care about Swede not only through the explosion of the storybook Middle America into the Turbulent with Knowledge of Inequality 60's and onward, but because his fall is so hard. Emotionally, he is to be left with nothing, and Roth takes us there with immediate prose that grounds like broken glass into the pores of every moment. He is challenging and disturbing and spares no detail, but Roth's work is worth the wait for the depth of pathos and character he conveys. The book seems to end a little lopsidedly, and I found the main drive of The Human Stain a little more compelling than this one, but Roth is certainly a writer we cannot live without. If we want to know what America has become, don't listen to the idiotic pundits on the air (on either side of the fence) think (if you can call it that)--instead, read Roth, and you will see what we have become and who we need to be. While we have entered the era of Controversial Nonfiction, Roth reminds us that the REAL news is in fiction....more info
  • Roth is in top form here
    I've read two of his other books (the better of which was Human Stain, although I liked them both), and I must say that this trumps both. The characters, each of them complex and beautifully developed, unfold gradually, and as you learn the secrets of their lives, your heart breaks slowly. I can't say much about this book that others haven't, but I thought it deserved my vote, because this Pulitzer prize-winner is one of the best modern American novels, and it deserves nothing but five stars. Anything less is a travesty. If you're listening, Mr. Roth, I applaud you....more info
  • Powerful but ...
    The first three-quarters of this novel are absolutely captivating and "unputdowanably" good. And yet just when I thought it was about to get even better, Roth shifts gears and peels away another layer of the onion to show us these people and their friends and family through the main character's eyes. While eventually the story picks up again, this radical shift took away some of the enjoyment for me.

    Nevertheless, Roth is his typically, excellent self here, providing great prose, excellent character development and a gripping plot.

    The Nathan Zuckerman character doesn't play as much of a role in this novel as he did in, say, The Human Stain. Here, it's frankly an unnecessary device, even though it doesn't get in the way of enjoyment.

    My only quibble is that I was far more interested in Merry, the main character's daughter, than in the range of emotions Swede Levov -- the main character -- experiences. I wanted to see Merry more, especially as she was doing, seeing, thinking, and ultimately developing into the radical protester she would become. Instead, it is all given to us second hand, from Swede's discoveries, and we experience his emotional turmoil instead of hers. True to life in that way, I suppose, as few of us really experience the center of the storm. We mostly hear about others doing so. Still .......more info
  • Mundane suburbanality, complete with anxiety disorder.
    So there's this guy who is a naturally gifted athlete with male model looks. He joins the Marines, then goes to college, inherits his fathers successful factory, and marries a beauty queen. They buy a 20 acre estate out in the country, and dabble in a semi-rural farm type life. Oh yeah, he's also got an anxiety disorder. And big Rothy devotes his considerable literary abilities to describing a lifetimes worth of neuroses.

    His wife cheats on him, and his daughter's a psycho. I think he has an affair too somewhere along the way, and he likes to eat spaghetti at an Italian joint in midtown after catching a show. But it's mostly about this dudes anxieties. Phil's tremendous skills make this a pleasant book, and despite the mundane suburbanality, I actually didn't yawn once. Quite an impressive accomplishment, all things considered. Still an overrated book.

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  • When Good Writers Write Bad Books (They get awarded the Pulitzer Prize)
    It's my impression that the Pulitzer Prize is generally awarded to superior writers for inferior books. Maybe the idea is to encourage newer writers who show promise and belatedly to acknowledge experienced writers in decline or maybe it's strictly a matter of politics, but I've yet to read a Pulitzer-Prize-winning book I thought was up to scratch.

    John Updike's second novel, "Rabbit Run", was possibly his best, certainly his best Rabbit book, and deservedly won a National Book Award, but Updike was awarded Pulitzer Prizes for his anemic "Rabbit is Rich" and his slightly better "Rabbit at Rest" instead. Other disappointments include the disjointed "Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" by Michael Chabon and "Ironweed" by William Kennedy.

    "American Pastoral" is probably not much worse than "Letting Go" and the "Facts", but it's certainly no match for any other of Roth's books from "Goodbye, Columbus" to "The Counterlife". The thing about it that disturbs me particularly is that if I didn't know his previous work or his biography I'd be willing to bet its author had no first-hand acquaintance with the sixties at all. The tone is completely off.
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  • Familiarity Breeds Contempt
    I found this book more and more difficult to read as it progressed. Too much time spent inside the Swede's head sharing his doubts and questions. At about the 3/4 mark, I was finding myself becoming impatient and annoyed with the main character. So much so, that when his brother unleashes a verbal tirade on him about his lack of a backbone, I was in total agreement. I was hoping that exchange was going to lead to some kind of action by the Swede, but he just chalked it up to jealousy on his brothers part, because everybody loves the Swede. He even began to repeat himself and it became like listening to a relative telling a story you've heard before.

    As for the supporting characters, I found his wife Dawn to be shallow and unlikable and his father to be a bit overbearing. The most interesting characters, his daughter Merry and his nemesis Rita Cohen, were simply not given the development that would have made this a much richer reading experience. ...more info
  • Good book to talk about
    This book is about two hundred pages too long. On a certain level I understand why the book begins with the Nathanial Zuckerman, with the mystery of the Swede, with the high school reunion... I know that the novel is part of a trilogy. I understand that the opening echoes the WASPy Gatsby. And I am sure that a close study of the opening will reveal some statement on the structure of the American novel. But in the end, I do not believe that the opening--some 112 pages long--really adds to the central story. The opening of the novel creates a lens through which the narrative can be viewed. An attempt maybe to shift the reader's reading. The reader suddenly knows the narrator, the fictional writer of this story; knows something of his world, his concerns. The reader is suddenly not just reading the story as it is, but also reading the story as it might be read or understood within the world (middle class, educated, baby boomer, New Jersey, Jewish) of the fictional narrator. Interesting perhaps, but what of it? And to be perfectly honest, when the writer as character enters a work I am immediately turned off. I am just not as interested in writers as I am in "real" characters.

    I appreciated the insights, appreciated what the characters did and said. The writing was quick and smart. But I kept thinking there had to be more to the novel, that the narrative would lead someplace other than the familiar old idea that those rich white folks ain't so perfect after all.

    The narrative, in the end, did deliver--sort of. It created a world in which the extremism of groups like the Weather Underground is placed in contrast to the common order of America. But there is a moment, right in the middle of the book, where the mythology of common America is shown to be no less a fallacy than the mythology of terrorist/revolutionary ideologies. The protagonist realizes this. And it really is a brilliant moment. But that is as good as it gets, and there are over 200 pages yet to go. Everything from that point forward is simply a less dramatic and less engaging restatement of this central idea. Marriage is a myth. Family is a myth. WASP history is a myth. Politics is mythology. Religion is of course a myth. The heroes (if that is what we can call them) of the book emerge as those who release themselves from the yoke of American mythologies. But they're rightous jerks in doing so.

    The idea that America is the sum total of its conflicting mythologies is graphically drawn out in the novel. And it never becomes an idea driven novel. In the end I prefer a simple, straightforward narrative. And that is the part of this book that I most enjoyed. All the other stuff -- Nathanial Zickerman (first 75 pages), the dinner party (last 80 pages)--I could have done without....more info
  • Book Club Winner
    American Pastoral was one of the memorable books for our club. We actually began the discussion in the car on the way to our hostess' home, continued through wine and appetizers through dinner. We had some very divergent opinions on "Swede" and his reaction to the book's events. The book also prompted a good discussion on whether the individual can change, parenthood, the Vietnam war as compared to the war in Iraq, and the context of religion in our lives. ...more info
  • One of Roth's best novels
    I understand that a movie version of AMERICAN PASTORAL is in production. Great novels are difficult to make into great movies. Roth, who has written several great novels does not translate well to the screen. Interior action has primacy in a book and is near impossible to replicate in a movie. Roth is a wordsmith of the highest order. Each sentence is crafted with a flair and precision that raise the novel not merely through thematic content, but in terms of aesthetics, to a high artistic standard. A major theme of AMERICAN PASTORAL and several other Roth books is helplessness..the futility of trying to control one's destiny. This futility, which inevitably leads to anger, and can lead to hopelessness, and personal disintegration, is due to circumstances beyond one's control. Those circumstances can be either internally or externally generated. One can be a slave to one's own passions and obsessions (Mickey Sabbath in SABBATH'S THEATER), or as in the case of Seymour Levov in AMERICAN PASTORAL, an innocent victim of societal whim, a leaf blown off a tree called the American Dream, and swept off into a terrifying unknown. Written with masterful prose, laced with cynicism, humor, bitterness, and rage, AMERICAN PASTORAL is a great novel. Philip Roth has a distinct style, insight, and sensibility that sets him apart from most of the writers of his generation. He has the ability to present historical events in a new light, with passion and style, through a unique personal vision.
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  • intelligent and moving
    Though Roth is a bold stylist-- with monologues and rants much of the time--and addresses topics like sex and violence in a rather "open" way with much satire and detail, the strength of this novel is the way Roth explores themes and characters with nuance and subtlety. The novel is about a guy Swede who has it all and has the perfect " American" dream life with a country home, great job, a beautiful wife, and a child...but it all goes awry when his daughter Merry becomes a terrorist and blows up a post office where a person is killed. It's a big novel that addresses many American themes: politics and political correctness, race, religion, innocence, family life, and societal norms. It's a novel that works on multiple levels: a mystery and paranoid horror story about a man who doesn't understand why his daughter did what he did, a family drama, and a social commentary. Roth's portrayal of Swede's downward spiral into self-doubt, confusion, and anger gives this intellectual novel great emotional heft. Roth's portrayal of Swede's love for his daughter and wife are particularly moving.

    The weakness here is that Roth tends to be a bit long winded and is almost too detailed: certain segments on the intricacies of glove making ( Swede is an owner of a glove making shop) and historical background of certain Jersey towns... I could have done without. Overall, it's a smart, entertaining, and topical novel...and Roth's message seems to be this: moderation, in both one's personal and political life, is key. ...more info
  • Pulitzer?
    The characterization in this book is admirable, but it flounders in the plot and narrative departments. Much time is spent in pondering ontological and deterministic questions, as well as explaining in great detail the intricacies of glove-making. Roth dwells on the emotional inner torment of his characters to an almost maudlin degree.

    It's not a terrible book by any stretch, but I have a difficult time believing there was none better in 1998, and it certainly isn't among his strongest. Anyone disappointed by this novel should try Ghost Writer, which is more compact and substantial, without so much self-indulgence in suburban philosophy. Roth is still a great writer here, it simply feels as if he begins coasting near the halfway point, and the book floats on from there to its stultifying conclusion....more info
  • A Great book, but not at all Pastoral
    This is a great book, one I have read twice. When I find a book as grand as this, I am truly grateful. Once I finished this book, I ordered all of Roth's other books.

    The book's story line is about a young woman raised by a 'normal' family. She becomes politically active in a group similar to the Weathermen. Her father's heart is broken and he searches their lives to find out if he can find the reason. He also spends a lot of time searching for his daughter who has disappeared.

    Having come of age in the sixties I can appreciate the right-on characterizations, cultural milieu, and the east coast at that time.

    I hadn't read Mr. Roth's books in decades and thought of him as the man who wrote 'Portnoy's Complaint'. Yes, he is that author but he has matured in his writing just as his characters have grown, wizened and given life to themselves. Both Zuckerman and Roth have experienced more over the years. Life is like that....more info
  • simple, idyllic life
    Ok, I admit I had to do a dictionary search on the word "pastoral." I was hoping that if I understood what the title was trying to betray that it would be more likely that I would understand the point of the book. So, "pastoral" is referring to a simple, idyllic life. I gather then that Roth is trying to show a contradiction of the view of American life as simple and idyllic. I get it, but why was the book so uninteresting. Maybe the contradiction was not strong enough. I believe the problem stems from the fact that the story really doesn't have a plot, so we are rolling around where there is no real conflict point or destination to our reading. If I got the point in a simple dictionary search and that point was not expanded by the story then all I needed from this book was the cover. The cover is pretty cool so I will give it 5 stars, too bad the story got in the middle of it....more info
  • A Great book, but not at all Pastoral
    This is a great book, one I have read twice. When I find a book as grand as this, I am truly grateful. Once I finished this book, I ordered all of Roth's other books.

    The book's story line is about a young woman raised by a 'normal' family. She becomes politically active in a group similar to the Weathermen. Her father's heart is broken and he searches their lives to find out if he can find the reason. He also spends a lot of time searching for his daughter who has disappeared.

    Having come of age in the sixties I can appreciate the right-on characterizations, cultural milieu, and the east coast at that time.

    I hadn't read Mr. Roth's books in decades and thought of him as the man who wrote 'Portnoy's Complaint'. Yes, he is that author but he has matured in his writing just as his characters have grown, wizened and given life to themselves. Both Zuckerman and Roth have experienced more over the years. Life is like that....more info
  • Roth at his Finest
    Roth combines two things we look for in a great novelist. A thorough command of the English language and a human heart. He can execute literary pyrotechnics on par with DeLillo or Pynchon, but what elevates Roth to the status of a master is his empathy. He deep, immersive compassion for his characters.

    The last sentence of American Pastoral reads, "What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?" It cuts through so much ephemera and filigree of lesser literature. ...more info
  • Astonishing
    First and foremost about AMERICAN PASTORAL, Philip Roth can tell a compelling story. He strikes a firm, urgent rhythm in the narrative voice and information ordering that swoops the reader up and down the architecture of plot. He creates profoundly real characters who embody much of the American experience as well as universal Biblical themes. This is an incredible achievement. It makes for hugely satisfying reading.

    Roth introduces his story through the eyes of his notoriously recurring protagonist, writer Nathan Zuckerman. The occasion of his 45th high school reunion in his old Newark, NJ neighborhood yields profound and touching observations about the human need for reunions, especially at an age when more and more classmates appear in the in memoriam pages. The trip home also reminds Zuckerman of his own local hero, a friend's older brother, the embodiment of the successful American student, football star, military hero and business man, the child of Jewish immigrants who out performs Waspish old blood at every turn, including looks-- the Swede. In a moment that cuts through the camaraderie of the reunion, Zuckerman learns that the Swede's life was not the iconic pastoral everyone thought. As he stares into the gauzy scene of swaying figures on the dance floor, a vision of what must have happened takes hold.

    And thus begins the third person story of Swede's fall from grace. He is not a bad man, he has earned his way good naturedly and thoughtfully, taking his responsibility to others seriously. He is dealt, however, a child who inexplicably becomes caught up in the violence of the 1960's, whose act of protest destroys her family and shatters the personal and collective American dream. Roth gets it all right, history, family and cultural psychology, and the nature of perception and tragedy. Wow.
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  • subtle satire on all American life
    American Pastoral is initially concerned with tracing the psychological roots of that elusive Jewish unconscious oneness with America. In a neighbourhood in Newark, the somehow unprobable myth of the all-American Jew is embodied in Seymour "Swede" Lebov, a blue-eyed blond Jewish adolescent, the local sports hero. The Swede?s personality becomes a riddle: as a thoroughly Americanised Jew, where was the irrationality in him, where the conscience? The supposed subjectivity of the Swede is initially conceived of as "unimaginable" in the eyes of the literary narrator of the novel, Nathan "Skip" Zuckerman. The novel itself is Zuckerman?s attempt to recreate the events in the life of his boyhood hero so as to bring to the surface the dark shock that befell him and transformed his ideal life into a nightmare.

    Was it possible for a Jew to have lived a life fully devoid of consciousness? As Skip is going to discover, the apparent blandness of the Swede does not hide a perfect happiness but a terrible tragedy at the core of his family life, his most valued asset. How can it be that the daughter of the football captain and the beauty queen could have grown up to become involved in the bombing of the local post office in Old Rimrock, their small town? Was this tragedy the result of the Swede?s suppressed conscience?

    The Swede is initially puzzled by the seeming thoughtlessness of the revolutionary world that he gets to know through his daughter: "How does a child get to be like this? Can anyone be so utterly without thoughtfulness as Merry Lebov and the extortionist Rita Cohen appear to be? What kind of criminality, megalomania and insanity has possessed her and other seemingly angry anti-war protesters to set off the bomb? How could Merry hate America when she had no conception of America? The Swede is as terrified by their rash "act" as by the emptiness apparent in their bogus ideology. How can anybody save the world?s oppressed by disseminating death?

    Merry Lebov?s main preoccupation since childhood had been "the extremes to which gentle people have to resort in a world where the great majority are without an ounce of conscience". Her father anguishingly searches her past in the hope of finding clues to account for her deviation. Is this the way to find his own lost values? Or is he too lost for that? Why can?t he just continue to be the neighbourhood hero?

    But his life acquires an increasing complexity because he gradually stops regarding his self as blameless. Perhaps inter-marriage is not such a good thing after all (his wife being a Catholic). Perhaps his mistress was not at all that likeable. Perhaps they should not have moved to a WASP neighbourhood, where their backgrounds did not fit... As a result of his ordeal the Swede has come to realise that one?s personal life is not a playground or the culmination of the fantasy of the so-called American dream, but a site of deep responsibility. Yet, is it too late for him to change and undo his daughter?s crimes? Can she really be called his daughter when she has only inherited his failures? The story of birth and succession, of generational history, becomes utterly improbable: "He had seen that we don?t come from one another, that it only appears that we come from one another". By the end of the novel Zuckerman?s tale has become so absorbing that we seem unconcerned to retake the narratorial voice.


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  • Just some background on Roth books......
    Book Description: Boston/NY Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

    Roth's four books published in the 1990s collectively won the
    Pulitzer Prize
    National Book Critics Circle Award
    Pen/Faulkner Award
    National Book Award

    This is an unprecedented accomplishment in American letters. American Pastoral was voted one of the five best works of American fiction of the last quarter century in the New York Times Book Review survey. ...more info
  • True to my Word, Almost
    In my review of "The Plot Against America", which was not very favorable, I vowed to give Mr. Roth a second chance by reading his Pulitzer Prize winning novel next. Actually, I read "Everyman", then I read "American Pastoral". I can say that I actually liked both books more than I did "The Plot Against America".
    I think, at its core, "American Pastoral" is a very interesting work on introspection and how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive others and the image of ourselves that we project. In the middle of the book, I was convinced it was a truely great American Novel, encompassing family values and morals, cultural and religous stereotypes and political vicissitudes. But, toward the end I felt it was a bit long and rambling and lost some of its strength. In my previous review I wrote that I would not purchase another Roth novel if I was not impressed with this novel. I have bought three Roth novels. That is, likely, the end of my contributions to his vacation home fund....more info
  • Great, perhaps, for English majors, but boring for my bookclub.
    American Pastoral was repetitious to the Nth degree. I read the Human Stain a few years ago, and it was good. But, in Pastoral, the reader is put through a zillion permutations of possible dialogs between the Swede and a psychoanalyst, and between his daughter Merry and a psychoanalyst, but absent the psychoanalyst: Roth is our psychoanalyst. What he misses, however, is that we simply have to realize that interpersonal dynamics are sometimes beyond our control. The Swede never failed as a father; rather, he failed because he couldn't let go of his sense of responsibility for her....more info
  • The fragility of life
    Like the proverbial "house of cards", the life of an American family is built on values handed down from one generation to the next. Yet, the world has changed and those values have not been modified or altered to reflect these changes. The "house" collapses when the daughter of the main character rejects all that her family and society holds dear, and her actions destroy not only her life, but the lives of everyone she has known.

    Powerfully written, Roth continues to show that he is an artist whose medium is the written word. Having myself grown up in the Newark/Elizabeth area of northern New Jersey, the descriptions of neighborhoods and streets added to my overall enjoyment of the book. But, it is the story that drives home the depth of the human experience. It is about how the unpredictablility of one's life can alter and effect one's perceptions. Sometimes, what is planned for never occurs and what occurs is not planned for. This is a deep and well-written story about the human experience. Although long and sometimes too detailed, this is a must read for anyone interested in the impact our upbringings have on our lives....more info
  • Idyllic Life Unraveled (4.25 *s)
    It is a convenient fiction among upper-middle class Americans that life can be managed and maintained in perpetual tranquility: just do the right things, consult all the right experts, associate with all the right people, etc - although it is more an assumption than a well thought out philosophy. Swede Levov, a non-practicing, Jewish third-generation owner of a factory making gloves in post-WWII Newark, was the epitome of that belief system. He was an unassuming star athlete, who married a Miss America contestant, and became the father of a precocious little girl Merry living on a large farm in semi-rural NJ.

    But that idyllic life started unraveling, as his daughter developed a stuttering problem blemishing the perfect family, began associating with political radicals at the young age of fifteen, and finally blew up the local post office killing a beloved local doctor. The narrator, Nate Zuckerman, a younger classmate of the Swede, knew little of this when he met the Swede at a restaurant some 27 years after the bombing. He only discovered that his assessment of the Swede as being utterly bland and non-reflective was terribly wrong after running into the Swede's younger brother Jerry at a high school reunion.

    The book proceeds from that point from the perspective of the Swede. The Swede constantly assesses and reassesses his family's life trying to find the triggering event(s). In addition, he has to contend with the turbulent times of the late 60s, such as the riots and destruction of Newark, as well as the slow deterioration of his marriage. The book is a very deliberate examination of the awakening and anguish of a once blithely contented man, who comes to understand that much of life is illusory, unknowable, and fragile.

    The book does stall in places and is short on answers, such as about Merry. She almost seems more a device to tweak the Swede than a fully explored character. Nonetheless, the book is thought provoking.
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  • Highly recommend the audio version
    This is the intense, profound, almost unbearably sad story of Swede Levov, brought to life in the audio version by a mind-blowing performance by Ron Silver.

    The Swede was the hero of narrator Nathan Zuckerman's youth, the "household Apollo of the Weequahic [New Jersey] Jews." The Swede's blond good looks and athletic prowess became "the repository of all their hopes" -- and allowed the neighborhood to forget the war.

    To Zuckerman, the Swede had been the embodiment of the hero of his favorite childhood book, "The Kid From Tomkinsville." The Kid was a star ball player, a "modest, serious, chaste, loyal, naive, undiscourageable, hard-working, soft-spoken, courageous" boy, who, in the final pages of the book, was struck down on the field and carried off inert through the mob on a stretcher. Zuckerman had secretly viewed this story as an augur of the Swede's own life. Zuckerman had wondered if it had occurred to the Swede "that if disaster could come and strike down the Kid from Tomkinsville, it could come and strike the great Swede down too?"

    The Swede's mythic power stays with Zuckerman throughout his life. Forty-five years later, out of the blue, the Swede contacts Zuckerman -- now a renowed writer -- and invites him to dinner, ostensibly to talk about the Swede's father. Zuckerman accepts the invitation, but is incredibly disappointed in how the Swede has turned out. Although he still had the face and physique of a God, the Swede seems to be almost unbearably bland -- every word from his mouth is good natured and unobjectionable.

    Zuckerman sadly concludes that the Swede has turned out to be "the embodiment of nothing," but soon finds out that his assessment of the Swede is wrong. A few months after the dinner, Zuckerman runs into the Swede's younger brother Jerry at their forty-five-year high school reunion. Jerry reveals that an unbelievable, unthinkable tragedy had befallen the Swede twenty-five years before, and the horror of that event had destroyed the Swede's life.

    For the rest of the book, Zuckerman explores "the brutality of the destruction of this indestructible man." Zuckerman imagines the Swede's internal life over the course of a half-century. The Swede's story unfolds in a spiralling structure that goes back and forth through time, as the Swede obsessively tries to make sense of the inexplicable.

    Through the Swede's ruminations, Roth explores incredibly weighty themes: a parent's love for a child, the nature of perfection, the randomness of life, the delusion of control and moderation, and the helplessness and hopelessness of trying to figure out why things are. Most of all, Roth seems to struggle with the notion that there cannot be depth without suffering, and that without that depth, life would be meaningless. You get the feeling that Roth wishes he could appreciate the ordinary guy -- the bland, honorable, decent people who live their lives with relative equilibrium. Roth seems to regret that it is only the Swede's tragedy that makes him interesting, and that it is only in imagining the Swede's excrutiating pain that Roth can identify with him.

    Overall, the book's tone is intense and dark, but there are moments of humor that are funnier than just about anything I've ever read. Roth's description of the Valentine's gift that the fifteen-year-old Jerry makes for his secret crush had me laughing for days.
    ...more info
  • Another brilliant work by Roth...
    I've yet to read a book by Phillip Roth that I don't enjoy. Amazing literary works, and this one is no different. The Swede's lunative, insane female dog of a daughter, Merry, reminds me so greatly of some of the looney tune protestors in my old hometown, Eugene, Oregon, and the mentality displayed by not only Merry but the idiots she embraces is a startling perspective on some of nonsensical so-called countercultural revolution that took place during a very tumultous time in American history.
    I'll admit that I had hoped to see an ultimate resolution in answer to Merry's actions, as well as that dumb broad that swindled the Swede out of his money, but I guess it's ultimately a good example of an author not being able to give everything to everyone out there.
    Regardless, I was amazed by this book. Thank God the '60s are over....more info
  • Definitely not one of his lighter offerings
    I didn't just read this book - I felt that I actually lived it too. I was so caught up in "The Swede's" great life turned horribly bad that it was a real relief when it was over! Roth saturates you into his life with all of the minute details he can render - and still leaves many, many questions unanswered. I agree with someone who said the Swede's life is a symbol of America in the 50s and 60s and how things changed so drastically. The writing was a little difficult to keep pace with - it's pretty dense and I felt quite repititious, especially when telling about Swede's state of mind after the bombing. I would have liked to know a little more about what happened in between Swede's two lives - but I guess that was not the point of the book. Recommended but know before going in that it's not light reading and Roth uses almost none of his wonderful humor in this one. ...more info
  • Definitely not one of his lighter offerings
    I didn't just read this book - I felt that I actually lived it too. I was so caught up in "The Swede's" great life turned horribly bad that it was a real relief when it was over! Roth saturates you into his life with all of the minute details he can render - and still leaves many, many questions unanswered. I agree with someone who said the Swede's life is a symbol of America in the 50s and 60s and how things changed so drastically. The writing was a little difficult to keep pace with - it's pretty dense and I felt quite repititious, especially when telling about Swede's state of mind after the bombing. I would have liked to know a little more about what happened in between Swede's two lives - but I guess that was not the point of the book. Recommended but know before going in that it's not light reading and Roth uses almost none of his wonderful humor in this one. ...more info
  • Philip Roth, AKA the BABE
    Is it Roth or Ruth? If this isn't a home run, I don't know what is. What a gloriously beautiful piece of writing. One supposes that there are those who don't care for Roth, just as there are those who don't like baseball, but for those of us who follow literature the way our fathers followed , say, the Brooklyn Dodgers, this is one of those lifelong memorable performances, a game that will go down in history. For one thing, Roth has immortalized Newark of yesteryear, a most livable place where one could imagine making a life. We see it and America here in full contrast: the good old days vs whatever one would call it today. Roth moves right in. Like Saul Bellow, he is a master at describing decay and squalor. Why is that? Not since Bellow's best and Updike's "Rabbit Is Rich" have I read descriptions that made me happy - even proud - to be alive. Roth celebrates the unthinkable and makes it true and bearable. Were it not for Roth, we'd run out into the street and get hit by a car which, in Roth's world (and ours), would speed away. But we know what the world could be, thanks to Roth: all of his characters yearn for it or remember it or think they've seen it. "American Pastoral" is the story of America, before... ...more info
  • An American Tragedy - 1968
    American Pastoral is the story of Swede Levov , a Jewish All-American hero from Newark, NJ in post WWII America. A three sport athlete and superstar at Weequahic High, everything seems to come easy for Swede. After graduation, he does a hitch in the Marines, returns home to New Jersey, attends college, and marries Miss New Jersey. He takes over his father's successful glove making business, moves to the Jersey suburbs and lives in the house of his dreams. Appearances, however, are not as they seem. The Levov's have one daughter, Merry.

    Ah, Merry (who is anything but what her name might imply)! Merry is a precocious child and the apple of Swede's eye. She is pampered and doted on by her father, but somewhere along the line something goes haywire. Growing up in the 60's, Merry becomes a passionate supporter of the anti-war movement. She falls in with fanatical elements of the Weather underground and, at the ripe old age of sixteen, plants a bomb at the local general store and blows it to smithereens! An innocent bystander is killed and Merry goes into hiding. She is henceforth legendized as "The Rimrock Bomber".

    From this point forward, Swede lives a double life. While maintaining the outward appearance of living an ethereal life in the suburbs, Swede inwardly struggles with the "why" of his daughter's atrocity; what did HE do to allow this to happen? Where is she? Did she really do this? How can he help? His suffering is both haunting and heroic.

    Philip Roth's alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, a boyhood friend of Swede's brother Jerry, decides to write Swede's story after an encounter with Jerry at a high school reunion. The results are gripping!

    Many novels remind me of network TV - you read them and they fade into oblivion. The characters and the plot line are a blur, if there are any memories at all. Occasionally, a novel will take root and you will carry it with you forever - An American Tragedy and Sophie's Choice come to mind. American Pastoral is a novel that will stay with you!
    ...more info
  • An immortal book...one of the 20th century's greatest.
    When I read books as "literature," I like to return in my mind to my student days & Dr. Eileen Cohen's (PhD, head of the English Department at St. Joseph's University, betimes) response to a student's question - what will students in this class on The Novel in English be studying 20 years from now? Now was 1974.

    In 1974, Dr. Cohen suggested that the novels of ideas, of John Foulkes for example ("The Magus", "The French Lieutenant's Woman", etc.) had legs. Frankly, so far we have not seen Foulkes become the flavor of a month or year or decade, although I did so love his books. Perhaps now that he's dead & gone we'll see a resurgence of interest in his books. Had we been 25 years or so further along in the game, however, I feel sure that Dr. Cohen would have included certain of the novels of Philip Roth in her list, & added some of the other novels on the NYT list of Best Books of the last 25 Years (pub May 2006) - although I feel sure she would not have fallen for all of them - "Beloved" is no match for many other books on that list, & I find myself scratching my head over "Beloved" as the overwhelming choice as the favorite. But I know with certainty that Dr. Cohen would have included this wonderful book by Philip Roth, "American Pastoral", among her best of the last 25 years.

    This book works on too many levels to count. Character development, narrative, dialog, structure - it never puts a foot wrong. A monumental achievement. It is a book to be included on virtually ANY list of The Best - of the last 25, 50, or even 100 years - of American literary accomplishment.

    Although the book has been criticized for being over-long, I found that it took Roth the right amount of time to establish that even the best among us - & the Swede IS the best among us - is ill-equipped to deal with chaos. And chaos is the book's theme.

    Read it & rejoice in it. It's not often that we see a work of genius, & truly this is one.

    ...more info
  • A flawed materpiece: great theme, great characterization, great story-some implausible plot
    American Pastoral has perfect pitch in terms of the characterization of four generations of a Jewish family setting down roots in Newark, and coming up 'the hard way.' When the typical progression from hardscrapple grandparent to 'bust your b___s' parent to liberal hard working son hits a tragic snare, the seemingly preconfigured order of the family universe is shattered. This 'local' tragedy resonates with the larger American culture as it goes through growing pains and, like American society, the family has a radical deus ex machina clitch in the late 60's and early 70's, one small blip on the radar of American radicalism but of life changing consequences for the family. The narrative is an interesting trope: Roth plays with time structure and point of view, and the narrator's relationship to the story is never quite clear. Is what has occurred what occurred or an imagining of what has occurred based on Zuckerman's reading of the death of his friend from cancer (or is it a broken heart?); is the central consciousness of the story the third-generation Jewish man who had everything or the outsider/writer who relates the tale? The fallen 'hero' in the novel is the 'by the books' affluent family man; the unconventional writer/observer pursues his art and maintains his equilibrium. This sub-theme is an interesting one and one to contemplate for would be artists, artists, and other 'unconventionals.' Roth proves himself one of the best novelists around here, and it would be nice if we stopped using the terms "Jewish writer' or 'African-American writer.'...more info
  • A Tiresome Read
    This book was quite impossible for me to finish. I found the writing unbelievably self-indulgent, muddy and abstruse. In a vain effort to be poetic, Philip Roth's style becomes overblown and ego-centric. Many times he expresses a thought in 3 or 4 pages that could have been articulated in a couple of paragraphs. It's like scratching an itch on your right ear with your left hand. I grew up in a neighborhood similar to his setting so I appreciated this but there wasn't enough clarity or dramatic reality to make me continue reading. His characters are cardboard and uninteresting. They didn't mak me care about them....more info
  • Self-indulgent twaddle
    Philip Roth takes a very dull character, "Swede" Levov and spends a few hundred pages introducing him and his dull life. Something interesting happens which sends the Swede into a tailspin, to the extent that he almost shows some emotion. Roth spends the rest of the book juxtaposing the Swede's heartache with many flashbacks of his previously dull life. Waaaay too many flashbacks. Who enjoys a book like this? It's a mystery to me....more info
  • Scrupulous Account of a Pivotal Point in America
    I recently finished an outstandingly beautiful novel (THE MASTER PLANETS), and immediately went into one of those "I'll-Never-Find-Anything-As-Good-Again" funks. Then I found this book, which is not only a brilliant piece of literature (it's by Roth, after all), but also deals with some fascinating issues similar to those in Planets--issues I wanted to read more about.

    As just one example: I am not Jewish, but have noticed in certain writings something uniquely poignant in the Jewish love for America immediately after World War II. This was the country that had taken in many Jews' parents and grandparents in a way never before experienced, I believe. For the first time they were not outsiders, but simply immigrants in a land full of immigrants. And for the first time, every opportunity--in this nation of bounteous opportunities--was open to them. It is not surprising that the name "America" would become almost a hymn on the lips of many American Jews in this period, that they would develop an unparalleled love for their country. As all of America basked in a cornucopian economy and the righteous sense that our own good works had entitled us to it, American Jews were, perhaps, "Ultimate Americans." So it is also not surprising that, like everyone else, they also gave little thought to the idea that the richness of life here might be too well fed by our military industrial complex and exploitation of Third World nations.

    The protagonist, Seymour "Swede" Levov, certainly does not think about these things, and therein lies his downfall. As Amazon reviewer Ian Muldoon (above) so aptly notes, the central question of the book is whether it is acceptable for Levov to to accept that he is one of the lucky ones and simply enjoy his place in time and history, or whether his good luck also carries an obligation. An inherently decent man, Levov does not look beyond his own life to wonder if it impinges on the lives of others. But his daughter cannot feel so sanguine. Merry has not had the good fortune of Seymour and his wife to be thought "perfect": She grew up with a terrible stutter, over which her beautiful parents agonized. Is this what gave her the ability (willingness? determination?) to see the fissures in the edifice they revere? In any event, she sees the fissures yawning, and her answer is to place sticks of dynamite in them -- and later to withdraw so far from the world that she scarcely eats so as not to "destroy plant life," and will not even wash for fear of "harming the water." She has started by demolishing the world around her, and is now obliterating herself. Miraculously, the stutter that at one time "terrified" Levov is gone... as she herself soon will be.

    AMERICAN PASTORAL is the story of a beautiful nation that, about 40 years ago, let some part of its best self slip away. As the "Ultimate American," Levov is the perfect symbol. As he thinks, so thought we....more info
  • Try this on for size
    American Pastoral
    This novel won a Pulitzer Prize and it deserved it. Roth's fictional author, Nathan Zuckerman, imagines the subsequent life of a man he had once idolized as a high school sports star from his old Newark neighborhood, Seymour "Swede" Levov. Swede's troubles ultimately revolve around his daughter, Merry.

    The novel features more about the fine leather glove business and the demise of Newark than many readers may want to know, but for me the detailed inside-knowledge descriptions exemplify one of Roth's characteristic strengths. He can also be quite funny, here especially when Lou Levov, Swede's father, speaks.

    Roth is the most socially insightful American author of our time, I think. He is also among the best at portraying the inner lives of men whom I can readily imagine to be real, not just made-up characters.

    A minor complaint: some longueurs in a few of the extended dialogues between Swede Levov and Merry and, separately, with a character named Rita Cohen. And just who is Rita Cohen, anyway, the Devil? ...more info
  • Pulitzer?
    The characterization in this book is admirable, but it flounders in the plot and narrative departments. Much time is spent in pondering ontological and deterministic questions, as well as explaining in great detail the intricacies of glove-making. Roth dwells on the emotional inner torment of his characters to an almost maudlin degree.

    It's not a terrible book by any stretch, but I have a difficult time believing there was none better in 1998, and it certainly isn't among his strongest. Anyone disappointed by this novel should try Ghost Writer, which is more compact and substantial, without so much self-indulgence in suburban philosophy. Roth is still a great writer here, it simply feels as if he begins coasting near the halfway point, and the book floats on from there to its stultifying conclusion....more info
  • Pastoral pain
    It's hard to fathom why "American Pastoral" won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1998. But hey, maybe it was slim pickins that year and Roth's almost-but-not-quite a great book was the best one out there. Anyway, the committee didn't ask for my opinion (they rarely do ...) so I'll use this forum to share a few of my thoughts instead.

    "American Pastoral" gets off to a promising enough start, but just when the book manages to work up a good head of steam the whole thing falls to pieces. It's the same case with the life of the protagonist, Seymour "the Swede" Levov. Seymour is a decent enough guy, but his idyllic existence implodes when his daughter Merry bombs the local post office, killing a doctor in the process. Merry becomes a fugitive, and the Swede spends the rest of the book trying to figure out where he went wrong.

    What goes wrong with this book is that the last 200 or so pages are a repetitive and turgid self-conservation inside the head of the Swede. That's all well and good if psychotherapy is your cup of tea. But don't crack this one open if you're expecting interesting character development, a compelling plot, or a vestige of satisfaction from reading it through to the end. Roth's long-winded style is also a bit grating, but mostly because so little ground is covered, despite the generous investment in ink.

    Devotees of Philip Roth will probably enjoy the best-selling "American Pastoral" as much as they do his other well known works. I think it's an acquired taste. Michener and King sold zillions of books by sticking to their knitting. It's the same with Roth. But be warned that commercial success doesn't always correlate with great literature....more info
  • Another brilliant work by Roth...
    I've yet to read a book by Phillip Roth that I don't enjoy. Amazing literary works, and this one is no different. The Swede's lunative, insane female dog of a daughter, Merry, reminds me so greatly of some of the looney tune protestors in my old hometown, Eugene, Oregon, and the mentality displayed by not only Merry but the idiots she embraces is a startling perspective on some of nonsensical so-called countercultural revolution that took place during a very tumultous time in American history.
    I'll admit that I had hoped to see an ultimate resolution in answer to Merry's actions, as well as that dumb broad that swindled the Swede out of his money, but I guess it's ultimately a good example of an author not being able to give everything to everyone out there.
    Regardless, I was amazed by this book. Thank God the '60s are over....more info
  • Exploitative
    This certainly is a prime example of brilliant manipulative rhetoric by the author, well executed for maximum readerly affect. In some respects thouroughly reprehensible, though. (I do not expect to get a positive response from this review, but that's okay). ...more info
  • American Terrorist
    This is an amazing book which for me worked powerfully on several levels - first, the characters are beautifully drawn, fleshed out to accompany and in some instances haunt us beyond the reading of the book. Next, Philip Roth evokes Newark of the second world war and follows it through its sad decline and the turmoil of the sixties and seventies with a thoroughly convincing sense of time and place. Finally, he answers a question which remains timely - where is it after all that terrorists come from? And the deeply disturbing answer is that they may very well come from characters we come to understand and care about. This is a book for the ages and I'm so glad I read it....more info