American Pastoral, by Philip Roth

Book CoverFinished 9-23-08, rating 3.5/5, fiction, pub. 1997

“Was everyone’s brain as unreliable as his?  Was he the only one unable to see what people were up to?  Did everyone slip around the way he did, in and out, in and out, a hundred different times a day go from being smart to being smart enough, to being as dumb as the next guy, to being the dumbest bastard who ever lived?  Was it stupidity deforming him, the simpleton son of a simpleton father, or was life just one big deception that everyone was on to except him?”           Chapter 8

This multigenerational story encompasses the social upheaval of the 1960’s and the issue of Jewish assimilation with authority and skill.  Nathan Zuckerman, a writer and fan of Seymour (Swede) Levov, the Jewish golden boy of New Jersey, is asked to to dinner by Swede and is excited at the prospect of helping a childhood hero.  After a disappointing dinner Zuckerman learns of Swede’s death at a class reunion and feels compelled to tell Swede’s story as he sees it.

Swede is the pride of the Jewish community, the blond, confident, athletic boy bridges the gap between cultures.  He marries a Catholic beauty queen and they have a daughter, Merry.  He takes over his father’s successful glove business and the family moves to the country and enjoy a nice house with land.  Swede’s life is good and he has everything he has ever wanted.  Then America goes into Vietnam and ignites a storm of violence and protest in the United States.  A teen-aged Merry becomes embroiled in the cause and does the unthinkable, changing not only her life, but the lives of everyone around her.

I liked the story, although heartbreaking.  It was an up close and personal view of the unraveling of a life which in turn causes destruction of everyone involved.  I cannot say that I am a fan of Roth or his convoluted writing style.  There comes a point when the self-examination and constant questioning just becomes too much to make the book truly enjoyable.  If I hadn’t been taking a class I may not have made it past page 50, but I’m glad I did.  The book was worthwhile.  I’ll find out as the class continues onto the next book whether Philip Roth is an acquired taste.

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