Life is just a short period of time in which we are alive.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, American Pastoral by Philip Roth is a thought-provoking novel about post World War II life in America and specifically, how Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and racial cultural norms interplay when forced together. Told from the perspective of Nathan “Skip” Zuckerman, a 62-year old writer who goes back to Newark, New Jersey for his 45th high school reunion in 1995, only to discover his childhood hero – Seymour “Swede” Levov and the older brother of a classmate – has just died at age 70 of prostate cancer that had metastasized. Having just seen the still “splendid-looking” Swede a few months prior at a restaurant in New York City where they had dinner together, Skip decides to write the life story of the Jewish kid from Newark who seemed to live the American Pastoral.
Seymour “Swede” Levov had it all. Genetically gifted with the looks of a Greek God and an athletic ability rarely seen in any high school much less a public high school in Newark, New Jersey, Swede was the star of the football, basketball, and baseball team.
Given the nickname “Swede” by his gym teacher because of his fair complexion, blue-eyes and blond hair, the anointing of a Nordic name on the son of a Jewish immigrant “made him mythic in a way that Seymour would never have done, mythic not only during the school years but to his classmates, in memory, for the rest of their days. He carried it with him like an invisible passport, all the while wandering deeper and deeper into an American’s life.” In Skip’s and in most people’s eyes, the Swede had it all.
The Swede graduated from high school right as the second world war was coming to an end and although he enlisted, he was saved from becoming a casualty by a mixture of timing and luck. He could have gone on to play professional ball but instead, the Swede followed his father’s directive and took over the family’s glove business in downtown Newark.
By the time he is 25, the Swede is married to Dawn Dwyer, a Catholic raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey whose greatest achievement in everyone’s eyes was the Miss New Jersey title she won in 1949. Together with their newborn daughter, the Swede and Dawn decide to buy a century-old sprawling stone house on acreage in Old Rimrock, New Jersey, a town known more as a bastion for WASP living than its tolerance for Jews and Catholics. In the Swede’s eyes, life is perfect: he has a beautiful wife, a glorious old home, and a daughter, Merry whom he adores.
The years go by and Merry grows and appears “more poignantly than ever not a small replica of his wife, or of himself, but an independent little being – something similar, a version of them, yet distinctive and new – for which he had the most passionate affinity.” In the late 1960’s, when Merry was a teenager the Vietnam War sharply divided the country and even though her parents were against the war, Merry did not believe in living in silent protest in the safe, sheltered streets of Old Rimrock. She commits an act of terrorism which shocks the world and her family.
In writing about the Swede, Skip learns that Merry is “the daughter who transports him 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 indigenous American berserk.” And, for the first time in his life, the Swede is forced to look beyond his surroundings and the beauty that has encapsulated his life.
Never in his life had he the occasion to ask himself, “Why are things the way they are?” Why should he bother, when the way they were was always perfect? Why are things the way they are? The question to which there is no answer, and up till then he was so blessed he didn’t even know the question existed.
With a keen eye for detail and character development, Roth writes a truly significant piece of literature that takes the reader into the depths of human thought by a person who appeared to live a charmed life: surrounded by beauty and admiration; known for his ability to make things work until the day he can’t. As Roth so keenly writes: “nothing is further from your understanding than the nature of reality” and reality is what the Swede refuses to see.
Everyone who flashed the signs of goodness he took to be good. Everyone who flashed the signs of loyalty he took to be loyal. Everybody who flashed the signs of intelligence he took to be intelligent. Ad so he had failed to see into his daughter, failed to see into his wife….probably had never even begun to see into himself.
American Pastoral is a fascinating read and utterly believable. Roth, who is known to write semi-autobiographical novels appears to be Skip Zuckerman, the writer of the story and the friend of the Swede’s kid brother. What compelled him to write about the Swede is not known but over dinner at the restaurant a few months before the Swede died, Skip noted “There’s nothing here but what you’re looking at. He’s all about being looked at. He always was. He is not faking all this virginity. You’re craving depths that don’t exist. This guy is the embodiment of nothing. I was wrong. Never more mistaken about anyone in my life.