Revisiting: American Pastoral by Philip Roth

There’s no question I’ve had trouble keeping to five posts a week around here (a goal so often missed that probably no one actively expects it at this point). It’s been particularly bad lately, but Friday posts have always been a bit of an issue. I’ve tried in the past to set a Friday post theme for myself, and I’ve come up with a new one that I’m hoping will stick better. Inspired in part by The Mookse and the Gripes, where Trevor has begun posting links back to some of his older reviews, I too will be looking back at past reads.

If I’ve written about a book here, I’ll link to it, but I’m interested in revisiting—briefly—whatever catches my eye that week, or whatever I’ve been thinking about or remembering lately, or just whatever I feel like. Sometimes I’ll dip in and out, sometimes I’ll re-read the beginning or some other passage, and sometimes I’ll just write about my current thoughts about or memories of the book, reevaluating it at some distance. If I feel it’s becoming too much of a time investment in books I don’t actually want to re-read (when I have so many unread books I should be spending time with), I may discontinue the idea. But let’s see how it works out.

I probably chose Philip Roth’s 1997 novel American Pastoral because I read on The Millions last week that the Library of America would be releasing an edition of his American Trilogy in September (not because of Roth’s recent interview in the Financial Times). I’ve re-read the first nine pages of my Vintage paperback edition, an ode to high school athlete Swede Levov.

What strikes me most is how much Roth telegraphs here. (NB: I would guess that all these “revisited” posts will involve even more spoilerishness than usual, so stop now if you don’t want to know anything about American Pastoral! Though the back of the book pretty much gives the show away here.) Swede Levov is, like everyone else the narrator went to school with in Newark, Jewish. But Swede is “fair-complexioned,” with a “steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask,” blue-eyed, and blond. Hence the nickname. And like any good blond, blue-eyed American child, Swede is a star at football, basketball, and baseball. He’s the hero of the entire neighborhood, which

entered into a fantasy about itself and about the world, the fantasy of sports fans everywhere: almost like Gentiles (as they imagined Gentiles), our families could forget the way things actually work and make an athletic performance the repository of all their hopes. Primarily, they could forget the war.

The narrator is younger than Swede, and is friends with his kid brother Jerry. The two play ping-pong in Jerry’s basement, and when little Nathan Zuckerman uses the bathroom he gets a peek into Swede’s room, where he finds a shelf of young adult baseball books by John R. Tunis, including The Kid from Tomkinsville, “a grim, gripping book to a boy, simply written, stiff in places but direct and dignified.” Nathan gets the books out of the library to emulate the Swede, but is horrified at the tragic ending of The Kid:

I was ten and I had never read anything like it. The cruelty of life. The injustice of it. I could not believe it. The reprehensible member of the Dodgers is Razzle Nugent, a great pitcher but a drunk and a hothead, a violent bully fiercely jealous of the Kid. And yet it is not Razzle carried off “inert” on a stretcher but the best of them all, the farm orphan called the Kid, modest, serious, chaste, loyal, naive, undiscourageable, hard-working, soft-spoken, courageous, a brilliant athlete, a beautiful, austere boy. Needless to say, I thought of the Swede and the Kid as one and wondered how the Swede could bear to read this book that had left me near tears and unable to sleep. Had I had the courage to address him, I would have asked if he thought the ending meant the Kid was finished or whether it meant the possibility of yet another comeback. …Did it occur to him that if disaster could strike down the Kid from Tomkinsville, it could come and strike the great Swede down too?

Zuckerman is not reminiscing about any of this by chance. He’s a writer, and he knows he’s starting out writing the story of the Swede—who will have disaster come and strike him down in spite of (or is that because of?) his resemblance to the Kid. The Swede’s story will mirror the Kid’s far too closely. Star athlete, all-around upstanding guy, no genius of course but a good guy, and boom, the rug pulled right out from under him, disaster. And Zuckerman will spend a whole novel reconciling that tragedy with his understanding of the world.

I said Roth was telegraphing, but in fact, he’s not. It’s Zuckerman. If you don’t know much about Roth, you probably won’t know about his alter ego either, but that’s what’s at work here. Roth pulling the strings, getting Zuckerman to set us up so well for the story of his childhood hero. When I actually read American Pastoral, several years ago now, I remember thinking the beginning was tough to get through, slow-moving. I remember having to read all this business about the Swede’s sports career, and how damn great he was, which was a little boring. I won’t say there’s nothing boring in these first nine pages, but I’m surprised to find how well it’s embedded in the novel as a whole.

2 comments to Revisiting: American Pastoral by Philip Roth

  • This is such a great idea for a regular feature! A good opportunity for close reading of a few pages, since you already have the general shape and flow of the book in your head. Looking forward to more in this line.

  • Glad you liked it! I feel like it could really be something good so I’m definitely going to try to stick to it.