05 May 2009

American Pastoral (Philip Roth)

The long-awaited review! Huzzah huzzah it has arrived! 

Somewhere Philip Roth's eyes are glued to the computer screen, eagerly scanning through my excessive opening prose, yearning to reach the accolades I promised him days, nay WEEKS ago and never delivered. Never fear Philip, you will always be loved here!

American Pastoral is the tale of Seymour "Swede" Levov, a sports star at his local high school in Newark, NY who goes on to marry a former Miss New Jersey and take over his father's glove factory. An idyllic existence is ripped to shreds when his daughter Merry becomes a little too excited about protesting the Vietnam War and blows up the local store and post office. What follows is the Swede's desperate attempt to keep his family together in the wake of his daughter's disappearance.

The first part of American Pastoral is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, who, five years younger than his hero, has idolised the Swede since he first met him at school. This is a nifty bit of penning on Roth's part: he is able to set up the Swede as this mythic, strong, AMAZING sportsman who was also a great guy going after the American dream. If the whole story had been told by the Swede it would have sounded more than a little naff if the opening chapters had been all "I was so wonderful, I was revered as a Greek GOD, to have met me was to have walked in the shadow of greatness for the briefest of moments..." Yes, I am glad I didn't have to go through that, because it would have made me dislike the Swede and that is something I am NOT PREPARED TO DO.

The Swede is one of the most magnificent characters of modern literature. He is the ultimate martyr yet never insufferably so, he is tall and handsome (Roth SAYS SO, I'm not just imagining this), good at every sport, gentle and thoughtful. Loyal, kind, in control, traditional with a modern twist...*SWOON*. I could go on but will spare you.

Watching the Swede's heart get ripped out as he witnesses his daughter's growing radicalism and subsequent bomb-making expertise that results in four deaths was quite unbearable. I felt tremendously sorry for him, supporting his hysterical wife, consoling the widow of the man his daughter murdered... and all I'm thinking is "Swede! Who is looking after you???" The thought actually crossed my mind, if I was living in Newark, I would have taken him cookies. 

Roth doesn't exactly have an economy of words, like Marquez the anecdotes are packed in until the covers of the book are groaning, but it's all part of the richly textured story and, unlike Marquez, I lapped it all up. I think it's because of the faith I have in Roth. If he wants me to know that much about how to make a leather glove there's gotta be a good reason!

It was also satisfying to read a book about American culture and have it not be a parody or a vitriolic tirade of hatred written by a belligerent youngster. Instead, Roth has created an intelligent comment on America that ultimately, is no comment at all, but rather an offering of characters and events that play themselves out with little obvious manipulation from the author. 

Exceptional, glorious and, above all ELEGANT, Philip Roth I salute you. 

Rating: 9/10. 
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