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American Pastoral
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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.

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.

Customer Reviews:

  • 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner describes postwar decline of American, America
    This novel is the story of third-generation Jewish-American Seymour "Swede" Levov. A legendary Newark high school athlete and local hero, Swede serves in a non-combat military role at the end of WWII and eventually inherits control of his family's Newark glove manufacturing business. Some family strife results from his choices of marrying Dawn, an Irish-American, Catholic former Miss New Jersey, and moving into an old Jersey country farmhouse far outside Newark, but his life mostly resembles a postwar, suburban fable of peace and success. Swede and Dawn have a daughter Merry, who transforms from a delightful child into an angry teenager consumed with violent leftist fanaticism. Frequent Roth narrator Nathan Zuckerman was a childhood acquaintance of the Levov family (the Swede was his boyhood idol). Decades later, after meeting with Swede and later his brother Jerry, Zuckerman explores the Swede's story, and most of the book is Zuckerman's account of the Swede's disintegrating life between 1967 to 1973.
    Some readers have interpreted the dissolution of Swede's tranquility as allegorical of the United States' political and social struggles through the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s. Racial discord, Vietnam, the Weathermen and Watergate all feature prominently in the novel (though critics have noted some historical inaccuracies in Roth's narrative). Swede's father bemoans the transformation of Newark into a blighted, crime-ridden failure, and urges his son to move the glove factory elsewhere. Roth's portrayal of Merry as a capricious, spoiled idealist seems to show his distaste for the New Left.
    While the plot fades toward the somewhat unsatisfying end, with a partially unfulfilling ending, this novel offers strong, memorable characters powered by vivid human emotion. Some have suggested this book's 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction stems more from cumulative acclaim for Roth's four decades of output than this individual novel, but it still merits a five-star Amazon review.
    ...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
  • much to much introspection
    I agree with the reviewer who said this work is boring. It seems Roth is trying to glorify Philip Roth and not the characters. He goes on and on describing the overwhelming feelings zuckermann has for "the swede", without letting us know who the Swede really is. Roth should let the characters tell the story or try to use less erudition in his narration.
    It gets to the point where the reader loses interest in finishing the book. I loved the plot against american because it was more character based than philosophizing about about the historical context of the times....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
  • Generational Doom
    American Pastoral is Philip Roth's meditation on the rise and fall of a certain American dream. The "Swede," (Roth's main character)is an athlete, a scholar, and a fine, hard working man who builds a business into a small empire. Finally achieving a sort of American country squire existence, the Swede discovers that his only daughter secretly despises his values. With the help of violent radicals, she blows up the quaint local post office, and succeeds in killing a doctor. The rest of the novel charts the Swede's agony as he attempts to understand this shocking event and its meaning for a man who always believed in the post war promise of a healthy, thriving, American paradise.

    Donald Gallinger is the author of The Master Planets ...more info
  • Powerful and painful
    It's a challenge to know how to rate this novel. As a work of literature, it's superb - Roth's prose is mesmeric as always and the exposition of a man's mental anguish feels convincing and haunting. As a novel I read for entertainment, I found it less satisfying, to the extent that I couldn't finish it.

    As Roth as Zuckerman imagines his way inside the Swede's head, the reader spends the majority of the book looking at the world through the Swede's eyes. Just as the Swede is compelled to revisit time and time again the events that led up to Merry's devastating actions and the subsequent years, so the reader is compelled to share his mental anguish. Whilst this is powerfully and restrainedly told, it does not make for an easy read emotionally. ...more info
  • Brilliant! Don't miss this!
    My first foray into Philip Roth, and I'm coming away highly satisfied. I'm actually sad I didn't read this as part of a book club, or in an academic setting, because there were so many themes and ideas I'd love to discuss and wrap my head around.

    This book, narrated by Nathan Zuckerman (whom Roth has used in previous novels, apparently) tells the story of Seymour "Swede" Levov, who grew up in Newark, NJ, in the 40s and 50s. The beginning of the book tells the story of Nathan and The Swede growing up, how Nathan idolized The Swede for his athletic prowess and good looks. Decades later, in the 1990s, Nathan sees The Swede's brother at their high school reunion, and learns that the Swede's life took a turn for the worse when his daughter decided to blow up a post office and killed a bystander in protest of the Vietnam War. The second half of the novel details The Swede's downfall, all coming to a head at the very end in a tragic dinner party scene that is possibly one of the greatest scenes of fiction I have ever read.

    Every element of this novel was pure genius. The scene setting--you feel as though you've stepped back into 1950s and 1960s, even the prose style changes depending on the decade. There are almost no one-dimensional characters--I particularly loved Swede's wife, Dawn, the ex-Miss America beauty queen turned cattle farmer (American Pastoral indeed!) The themes were all intriguing--the ever-changing generation gap, the progression of America as a country, inheritance, nature vs. nurture.

    This is a very cerebral book. I agree with some of the negative reviewers that parts could be slow, almost boring. But Roth uses his long diatribes and character rants to make his point, so they're worth plowing through and then putting the book down to think on. I also agree with some of the negative reviews that he included too much Wikipedia-esque information, like detailing how gloves are made (I understand this, too, was a metaphor, but it could be a tad repetitive at times) or telling me what a Jain is.

    That said, I would, and already have, recommend this book to family and friends. If you're in the mood for a deep, contemplative novel (read: not super cheerful) you can't go wrong with American Pastoral.

    ...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.
    ...more info
  • "into the indigenous American berserk"
    This book somehow struck me so hard that I started to dream about the characters. There was something about the Swede and the narrator's way of watching and observing him and the relationship that they both had to Merry that really hit home.

    I have thought about it quite a bit since I finished the book, but I still am not really able to say what troubled me so much.

    Perhaps something about this notion of the way that we create pictures for ourselves about the way that life should be? And then something else about how we imagine our children will populate these pictures? Memory, images, ideas, reasons, dreams, hopes. Dawn and her cattle farm. Merry and her strange religion. The way that Zuckerman plays out his own nostalgia in these stories?

    All a very heady mix.

    Reading across Roth's career, I find that I enjoy his later work the most. There is something in his prose very suited to the voice of an old man. I am particularly fond of the Nathan Zuckerman books in general. This one had some really great Zuckerman moments-- his return to his 45th high school reunion, for instance.

    Recommended. No need to have read any other Roth to appreciate it. American Pastoral won the Pulitzer prize in 1997....more info
  • ...from an older perspective
    I just finished reading American Pastoral, my first book by Philip Roth. Since it is my first Roth, I think I provide an unbiased perspective. I know he has written some other stuff, but my mind has not yet been corrupted by it. OK, so what is my opinion of American Pastoral?

    For starters, I think the style is a lot like that of Joseph Conrad in Lord Jim (the only Conrad I have read). There are pages upon pages of diversions from the main plot; lengthy descriptions of people sitting around at dinner tables; single events that are analyzed and re-analyzed from every possible angle, and then re-analyzed again. This type of literature is often fascinating but can quickly become tiresome, so I am not surprised that some of the Amazon reviewers were not able to finish the book. As far as readability is concerned, this book gets a B+. Delicious in places, starchy in others.

    Now, what about the main point that Roth is trying to make?

    He wants to tell us something fundamental about the All-American Man. He wants us to re-think our concept of the Successful American. He wants us to examine the American Dream closely and see what lies beneath its surface. He wants us to look behind the facade of beauty pageants and country clubs and face lifts and Little League and white teeth and football and big muscles and all that other good stuff we cherish about America.

    In this book, Roth tries to lift the veil and show us the real America.

    Is he successful?

    Sort of. For example, the fetid mess that propels All-American Swede toward insanity is masterfully portrayed. The mental breakdown of our All-American Hero is wonderfully choreographed. The Hero's slow descent into hell is captured page by page in exquisite detail.

    However, depsite all this terrific stuff, I came away with the odd notion that Roth himself may be slightly out of touch. This book is clearly written from the perspective of an older generation. The younger generation is seen as infantile, petulant, irksome, depraved, and so forth. Adolesence, to Roth, apparently has few redeeming features. Youth exists simply to torment the elderly, the Establishment. Roth, and his cast of bittersweet characters, are sadly on the wrong side of the hill. I don't want to say that Roth comes off looking like a grumpy old man. So I won't say it. I'll just think it.

    Lesson I learned from reading this book: if you are lucky enough to get a chance to live the American Dream, live it by all means! Enjoy! But, if you do decide you want to live the American Dream, go in with your eyes wide open. The American Dream is more complicated than it looks!

    Read the book if you have already lived your American Dream and you want to compare notes with somebody else who has been there, done that, too.

    Pass on this book if you are youthful, optimistic, and your Dream is still alive. You can always read this book afterward, once things settle comfortably down and you want to reflect on what it all meant....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
  • What a novel should be
    I am not a fan of using the same protagonist in many novels. I tend to think that it's a result either of laziness on the part of the author (the protagonist being so close to his own voice that to strike out with another character would be too difficult) or the desire to cash in on the success of previous novels with the same character. I put those issues aside to read this book anyway and I was very happy that I did. Thankfully, there was no need to be familiar with the other books. The details in this book of the politics of Zuckerman's youth, the glove factory, and the anguish at losing his daughter to the world make this a great novel. I have a terrible memory for the characters and events of stories, but this one remains with me. I've added several other of Roth's book to my future reading list....more info
  • A Masterpiece
    This was the first book I read by Mr. Roth and I have developed into quite a fan. This book, for me, is his best book, exploring themes of devoted families, fathers, terrorism...actually it weaves so many themes into one roller-coaster of a ride that I really can't name them all. Mainly, it is about a devoted father who's daughter goes terribly, terribly wrong in such a creative and interesting way. I don't like to give away plots in my reviews. But if you are looking for a deep read that truly explores one man's psyche, then read it. Roth is an amazing writer and I think that this is one of the best Zuckerman books, although I also really admired The Human Stain as well. I recently re-read it and it holds up just great upon the second reading. ...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
  • Characters Never Fully Put in Motion
    This book is long and difficult to read. It examines its characters, especially the protagonist Swede Levov, it terms of their motives; several times over and in great length. Only in-between these long periods of introspection do the characters see action. We learn more about the denizens of this book by narrative speculation than we do by actions that speak to us directly.

    The Swede is larger than life, the aggregate of his surroundings and his place and time in history. He is what the kids growing up alongside him want to be: a man of collective aspiration. Yet his persona proves elusive. He stands for and all the conflicts inherent in his times--forties and fifties Newark, New Jersey. The book spends the majority of its rather dense four hundred pages trying to tease out the mystery of this man. The reader is subjected to a prolonged and grueling examination. We are given glimpses of a vision but never the Technicolor whole. We are lead to believe that by understanding the Swede we will understand his age. But this never comes true.


    In 1968, Swede's daughter, Merry Levov, commits an act of terrorism that throws the whole Levov family into disarray and uproots them from their contented existence in pastoral suburban utopia, separating them from a place where values are truths and meanings are plain. Without these easy truths, the Swede is at a loss to understand what has happened to him and how he might be at fault, even who he is. -- And if he doesn't know, how the heck are we supposed to? -- The book is a pilgrimage of conscience leading more to an understanding of the process of a man's moral undoing at the hands of his unrelenting conscience, than to knowledge of the man himself.

    Warning. You will not like this book if you don't like "boring" books. American Pastoral is often very "boring." It pulls you along at such a pace that you're always on the verge of putting it down, until some morsel of action or realization excites you on . . . until the inevitable next lag. The characters in this book remain essentially inert. They are never animated. We are drawn a grand portrait but never see it come to life.

    While Nathan Zuckerman, a childhood friend of the Swede's brother, provides us with the narrative, which we are told is a story loosely based upon the Swede's life, and Zuckerman is the focus of the first ninety pages or so, after that we are left solely with the fictionalized Swede. Zuckerman never reenters or makes further comment or connects the man's story to what is happening in the present day. Maybe we should have seen more of Zuckerman. Maybe we should have been privy to him getting in touch with Swede's brother again, Jerry. Or maybe Zuckerman should have visited the dead Swede's grave. Or met with Swede's second wife. Better yet, have gone to find the present day Merry. As it is now, Merry just drops unceremoniously off the stage at book's end.

    But there are positive comments to be made as well. The life, philosophy and tradition the Swede's father's glove factory is very well described. We are given a comprehensive understanding of the business, and it is all very interesting.

    But back to the Swede. Nathan Zuckerman writes:

    "I dreamed a realistic chronicle. I began gazing into his life--not his life as a god or a demigod in whose triumphs one could exult as a boy but his life as another assailable man."

    Yes, this man is assailed. By his surroundings and his times but mostly by his own conscience. He is the incarnate of an age. Yet the truths and values he represents cannot be fully apprehended and understood because they are transitory and ephemeral--transitory and ephemeral *define* the spirit of the age. Times change.

    This book tried something huge and, more than likely, unachievable....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
  • American Pastoral
    This is a very well written novel. It is also very difficult to read. It isn't happy! It really visits the seamy side of life and is emotionally difficult. As a parent, you know that only by the Grace of God this did not happen to you. It explores the depths of parental love and the exasperation of raising a child in a difficult time. Roth more than deserved the Pulitzer for this novel, and you will be richer for reading it, but it won't be easy....more info