American Pastoral by Phillip Roth

I finally unpack my Top Ten book, and have it readily available.

So, in celebration of that, I go to Texas and forget it.  So, I’m unsure of who thought American Pastoral rocked their world enough to list it in their top ten.  But I do know that at least one author did.

I liked American Pastoral.  It’s the tale of an All American icon/idol.  The original narrator who then becomes the writer of the tale within the tale grew up in a small town where there was “The Swede”, the quintessential American, blonde, good looking, excelled at all the sports, had all the girls in love with him, even had specific cheers dedicated to him by the cheer squad.  And to the narrator, and all of his buddies? (except the Swede’s little brother, Jerry), the cherry on the top for them in their Jewish community?  The Swede was Jewish.  World War II is almost done when The Swede finishes high school and joins the Marines, determined to go over to the Pacific to finish it out.  While he is in boot camp, the war  ends and he ends up as a drill sergeant for the remainder of his time in the service.  He then marries a former Miss New Jersey, moves out into the picturesque boondocks of New Jersey, and takes over his father’s glove factory.  All through his life, into the 80s, the narrator imagines the Swede, and it’s like taking out the rookie card of your favorite ball player and idolizing what the rest of his life must have been like from that one card.  Then he runs into the Swede and has dinner with him, in which he (the narrator) comes to the conclusion that possibly the Swede is just this bland, boring, nice guy, that there  is no depth to him.

Then at the narrator’s high school reunion, the Swede’s brother Jerry shows up, because he is in town due to the Swede just having died.  And he lets loose that the Swede had a daughter from his first marriage, who in the late 60s, went a bit cuckoo and blew up a building.  And how The Swede’s life had been ruined by this “little bitch” (in the words of the brother).  So, the narrator, who is a writer imagines that time in the Swede’s life.

The story then becomes that of a man raised in one America, but then expected to live his life in a different America.  Roth takes the reader into a marriage that struggles to be what it should, parents that struggle to be who they should be.  In some ways, in parts of the book, you can see society struggling to be what it was raised to be.  But, it’s the late 60s and the entire world is changing.

Roth explores how families tie us.  How they define us, and how we often struggle our entire lives to break from those definitions.  Jerry, the Swede’s brother, and their dad are in constant conflict, Jerry rejecting and refusing the life that their dad wants.  Then there is the major conflict of Merry and The Swede, with her giving the ultimate rejection to the life she sees her family having forced her into.  And The Swede’s struggle with how he should be a parent in this new society and to this new stranger in his life.  This part sums it up.

“He had seen how improbable it is that we should come from one another and how improbable it is that we do come from one another.  Birth, succession, the generations, history–utterly improbable.

He had seen that we don’t come from one another, that it only appears that we come from one another.

He had seen the way that it is, seen out beyond the number four to all there is that cannot be bounded.  The order is minute.  He had thought most of it was order and only a little of it was disorder.  He’d had it backwards.  He had made his fantasy and Merry had unmade it for him.  It was not the specific war that she’d had in mind, but it was a war, nonetheless, that she brought home to America–home into her very own house.”

Happy New Year’s Everyone!

2 responses to “American Pastoral by Phillip Roth

  1. As if I didn’t already have enough books on my plate I’m so adding this to my NEED 2 READs list. I love stories like this 🙂

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