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.

The Plot Against America thoughts

As I mentioned before, one of the somewhat strange things about The Plot Against America is Roth’s decision to use his own name as the name of the narrator—who also shares a birth year, birthplace, and presumably quite a bit of childhood history with the author. One of the reasons I find this so strange is that Roth has written plenty of novels narrated by alter egos with different names, and he chooses to break the mold in a book that’s specifically not about Roth’s real history, because it’s not about anyone’s real history.

The novel takes place in an America that elects Charles Lindbergh president in 1940. Having an isolationist and fascist sympathizer running the show makes the life of Philip the character, at least for a few years, pretty dramatically different than the life of Roth the author. Roth’s focus is turned once again to anti-Semitism, a common theme for him, and I also find it interesting that it was “himself” he put into the America actually torn apart by anti-Jewish violence.

The strangest thing about the novel, to me, was the fact that the alternate history eventually merged with our own. We elect Lindbergh, we develop programs with fascist tendencies, we riot and kill people. But the ultimate excesses of the events lead to FDR’s reelection, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor goes on as in real life. Past that point we don’t know how closely the two histories really converge; does the America of the book remain a more anti-Semitic place than the America of today, or is there at least a(nother) painful chapter in the national narrative for people to deal with? Philip the character definitely claims his life was changed forever. He can no longer feel safe and secure with parents and government as protectors. But we don’t really know how Gentiles will process the tragic events in years to come.

One of my unhealthy hobbies is to read the negative reviews of books on I find them much more educational than the positive ones, in terms of finding out about the thoughts of my fellow readers. Many, many people seem to have been offended by the entire concept of the novel—postulating an America that could end up leaning fascist and anti-Semitic can only be anti-American, anti-Christian bigotry. Furthermore such a postulation is totally absurd because Americans would just never be like that. Furthermore America Firsters were totally justified in their isolationism.

I find such sentiments strange not only because by now we have discovered the awful extent of the Holocaust, but also because a huge part of the point of these kinds of exercises in alternate history is to explore possibilities that seem very foreign and probably upsetting to us, but that, who knows, could have happened given some tweaks in the timeline. The horror stories in the novel seemed very scary and very real, at least to my mind. Possibly the thing most difficult to believe was how easy it was to put the whole alternate timeline back in the box, instead.

Sunday Salon

Sunday SalonFor almost two weeks now I have been stalled—too much work, not a lot of energy for other pursuits. Picked up and put down a few books, but nothing was really sticking. The other night I picked up The Plot Against America, and while I’m not exactly riveted by it I am making my way through and enjoying it.

One of the strangest things about the book is that its first person narrator is actually named “Philip Roth.” I’m used to the narrator being Roth (well, seeming very much like him) but not having his name. But now that they share a name, birth year, and birthplace, I am much more preoccupied wondering which tiny details are autobiographical. It’s actually sort of distracting, but I’m sure it is a personal problem.


Philip Roth’s new novel has now gotten negative reviews from Michiko Kakutani and Christopher Hitchens. But Hitch does assure us that Roth hasn’t given up on his most important trademark:

I think that I shall give away very little if I disclose that blow jobs and hand jobs, administered by a sweet but unstable shiksa, play a not inconsiderable part in Roth’s version of “memory cogitating for eons on itself.”