American Pastoral by Philip Roth

March 24, 2009
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american-pastoral As I’ve mentioned before, one of my goals as a reader is to read (or at least attempt to read) all of the books listed by The Observer (UK) as the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time. With the completion of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which was No. 99 on the list, I’ve now completed 69 out of the 100 titles. Plus, I’ve already got at least 10 more from the list sitting on my bookshelf ready for me to tackle at any time, so I think I’m in pretty good shape here.

Fortunately, I’ve truly enjoyed a majority of the books I’ve come across thanks to this list — but American Pastoral was not one of the good ones. I tried to like this, but Roth made it impossible with his overwrought, dense writing style.

Plot summary (with possible spoilers): The story is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, a writer attending his 45th high school reunion. At the reunion, he meets childhood friend Jerry Levov, with whom Zuckerman used to play ping-pong. More importantly, friendship with Jerry gave the young Nathan vicarious access to the Swede — Jerry’s older brother who was practically a god amongst the high school crowd because of his athletic prowess.

Nathan always imagined that the Swede, whose real name was Seymour, had a perfect life. How could he not? He was idolized by his classmates, married Miss New Jersey, and took over his father’s successful glove factory. Even after a chance meeting a couple decades later at Shea Stadium, Nathan is under the impression that everything has worked out swimmingly for the Swede. How could it not?

But another dinner meeting with the Swede a few years later makes Nathan rethink his position. The Swede’s idea of interesting conversation was to drone on and on about how wonderfully well his sons turned out, which served to bore Nathan and make him think that the Swede’s life might have been ordinary after all. Then later, back at the reunion, Jerry reveals that he has just come from the Swede’s funeral, and says that the Swede actually suffered miserably for most of his adult life because his daughter Merry bombed a post office and general store in 1968, killing a local doctor. Ever since that incident, the Swede continuously tortured himself, trying to figure out where he and wife Dawn went so wrong in raising Merry that she turned into a killer.

From there, the writer in Zuckerman takes over, and he imagines the details of The Swede’s life from the time he left Weequahic High School to the time of their dinner meeting. Since the story is a product of Zuckerman’s imagination, the reader is left to figure out what’s truly part of the Swede’s life and what was simply Zuckerman’s fancy.

Liked:

  • I really liked the beginning of this novel. The whole story of the Swede’s high school days and how Zuckerman admired him so thoroughly and was basically obsessed with the guy throughout his life was very interesting, and drew me in right away.
  • Roth did a terrific job of painting a picture of what life in New Jersey during Zuckerman and Swede’s childhood was like. I have no way of knowing how accurate Roth’s descriptions were, but they certainly give the reader a distinct sense of place.

Disliked:

  • As soon as we started getting Zuckerman’s version of what happened in the Swede’s life, the book took a turn for the worse. I think I would have preferred hearing about Zuckerman’s romantic vision of the Swede’s perfect life than about the boring way it actually played out.
  • Roth’s writing style doesn’t appeal to me very much. He repeats himself quite often (sometimes long blocks of text are repeated verbatim), and frequently breaks dialogues apart with long digressions. This is not something that I enjoyed at all.
  • Roth sometimes took far too long to make his points, occasionally beating the reader over the head with a single idea. For instance, that whole section about the Swede talking to Merry about New York. It was something like “Conversation #10 about New York:” and then “Conversation #19 about New York:”, “Conversation #27 about New York:”, etc. etc. etc. for a bunch of pages. All the conversations were essentially the same, which was the point, of course (a parent arguing with a willful teenager about something), but cripes, it could have been handled much more succinctly!
  • The “action” dragged on forever, and since nothing was really happening, it felt as though the book was just far too long for what was ultimately conveyed. Roth probably could have cut out at least 100 pages — if not more — and wound up with the same result.

Rating:

I know that American Pastoral won the Pulitzer Prize and is highly regarded in literary circles, but I thought it was an excruciatingly boring read. I will certainly never pick up this novel again, and can’t in good conscience recommend it to anyone. I give it 1 star out of 5.

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