Thoughts on Philip Roth's "American Pastoral"

Written on June 15, 2022

I’ve long admired the writing of Philip Roth. Though I’ve read ten of his novels, it somehow took me until this year to pick up what many regard as his finest work, American Pastoral, but like dessert it sat waiting. The book follows the turmoil in the life of Swede Levov, former star athlete and successful businessman, after his daughter commits an act of political terrorism in 1968 in protest of the Vietnam War.

American Pastoral is simply very Roth. A reader gets to know an author and his interests, his idiosyncrasies, his idées fixe, after several thousand pages, and American Pastoral continues the culmination of the Roth’s pet themes — the struggle of the individual caught up in the march of history and politics, the “struggle” to find happiness and fidelity in marriage, the meaning of Jewish identity in midcentury America, the pathologies caused by sexual longing, and so on. It also contains one of Roth’s sometimes-used postmodern quirks — there’s a 75-page prologue that frames the rest of the book as being written by Roth’s recurring narrator/alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman. It’s unclear whether the story of the ostensible protagonist, Swede Levov, actually “happened” or if it’s the fictive imaginings of Zuckerman putting a mirror up to his own life and copying over his own thematic obsessions onto Levov. A similar device is used in Roth’s novels The Ghost Writer, The Counterlife, and more. By its themes and its construction, American Pastoral treads on old ground.

Upon finishing the book, my first reaction was that I was underwhelmed. I had come in with a deep appreciation for Roth (which understandably not all have), and the book had pedigree: rhapsodic reviews from authors I’d admired, and a Pulitzer Prize to boot. What I had found, initially, was a minor work. Not much “happens” in the book and Roth’s monologues and dialogues can grow indulgent; it lacks the verve and zip of some of his great works. The writer Richard Ford, reflecting on the novel in a capsule review attesting to its greatness, says “[i]ts structure is a bit bumptious. Its pace is slow. Its self-savoring longueurs are often very long.”

But the book has had a strange, magnetic resonance that stayed with me over time. Some three months after finishing it, I’m now ready to argue: American Pastoral is a great novel. Many books fade quickly in my mind, but the simple tragedy of Swede Levov has stayed with me in all its potency.

One key line from the book summarizes a key theme: “[Swede Levov] learned the worst lesson that life can teach — that it makes no sense.” Over the course of 400 pages we see Swede, as the back cover of the book describes it, “wrenched out of the longed-for American pastoral and into the indigenous American berserk.” Swede looks at the strange course his and his daughter’s lives has taken and finds it unexplainable. He showered his daughter with love growing up in an idyllic suburb, a fact that ceased to matter against the countervailing wave of 1960s social upheaval and what would come after. What is one person against the tide?

The book’s staying power is because it shows a universal horror: that we can do everything right and have everything going wrong. Like the Book of Job it inflicts layers of pain upon its characters, but unlike the Old Testament God, it does so with a deep, abiding empathy. Swede Levov is puzzled by his own undoing and with Roth’s writing we share in the frightful, wanton cruelty of fate.