Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Review: "American Pastoral" by Philip Roth

I have said this about many writers in my reviews, and if I haven’t missed Philip Roth yet, I will say it about him again: if you are any kind of reader, you should at least try to read one of his books before you die. He has a lot to choose from, but if I could guide you to one of his periods, the books he wrote in the 90’s, the ones deservedly lauded with every major American award, are something to behold. Once you get past all the thick, stuffy academic stuff about Roth, and just read his stories fro the pleasure of reading them, they are fantastic. He can be funny, ironic clever and heartbreaking through prose and dialogue, if not realistic, at least entertaining and challenging. American Pastoral, one of the books from the aforementioned period, and the one that won the Pulitzer Prize, is widely regarded as one of his best books, and while I may have enjoyed his ribald sex comedy Sabbath’s Theater a little bit more for its sheer audacity, I have more respect for this novel for its range of emotions it handles over the course of 423pages. They are heavy ones, such as the American Dream, failure, and how we look at others much differently than we look at ourselves, to personal family squabbles and how one person’s actions can ripple throughout the person’s family, changing it drastically for better, and in this case, worse. Like many of Roth’s novels, the framing device concerns bachelor writer Nathan Zuckerman, who, after attending his high school reunion, is reminded of his adolescent hero worship of Seymour “Swede” Levov, a rare blond Jewish man who seemed to have obtained the American version of success in not only school but in his adult life as well. After graduation, he marries a former beauty queen, Dawn Dyer, inherits his father’s successful glove factory and moves into his dream home. But the radical sixties have a cruel surprise waiting for him. Amid the riot in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, his daughter, Merry, whose increasing vitriol against the Vietnam War and bad stutter secretly shame Swede, sets off a bomb at a local post office, killing one of the town doctors. Merry goes into hiding after this, and Swede’s life is ruined forever. Through a mix of amateur reportage and speculation, Zuckerman reconstructs the fall of Swede in brilliant ways. It is hard, much like it was in Sabbath’s Theater, to view the narrative as a whole. Roth plays hopscotch with the timelines and it’s confusing until you get used to it. But what makes this a fantastic novel is the many complex ideas Roth presents, and the scenes, written with humor that can split your sides and emotion that can tear your guts out. From his many interesting ideas about people’s attraction to radicalism and how little we know of each other, to the scenes involving Rita Cohen, who cruelly trick Swede in his time of need, Swede’s meeting with his daughter five years after the bomb, a scene of helpless sorrow and misplaced regret, to a massive dinner party, where the last shred of Swede’s happiness is slowly torn away by night’s end. With this book, and many of his others, Roth has presented a unique American reality the way only he can, with dry, sardonic wit and a deep understanding of an esoteric form of American need and unhappiness.
Rating: 5/5

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