Before American Pastoral (1997), I wondered if the realist/naturalist strain of American writing had exhausted itself, books that placed their characters in the midst of history like USA (1936) by Dos Passos, Grapes of Wrath (1939) by Steinbeck, Rabbit Run (1960) by Updike, The Adventures of Augie March(1953) and Herzog (1964) by Bellow, The Armies of the Night (1968), Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), and Of a Fire On the Moon (1971) by Mailer. In the decades that followed, American novelists often seemed to be following an experimental or magic realist template, a path that has triumphs all its own but which only gave side glances to the consequences of historical forces upon American life. Not so with Roth and American Pastoral.
The hero of the novel is Swede Levov, the blonde athlete, hero of his high school class, the successful Newark business man, the thoroughly assimilated second generation Jew. He grows up in a prelapsarian Eden, a Newark neighborhood that is really a small town, one that is secure, loving, forward thinking, ascending, optimistic. The Swede embodies the peculiar American innocence of the one who has prospered that assumes the misfortunes of societal chaos will skip over him and those he loves, and that by dint of his hard work and goodness, he has made himself into one of the elect, one of those whom the sword-wielding angel will pass over in the night. The magic in Levov’s life comes in the shape of the material world -- in the thoroughness and love of making gloves, of the trees that surround his stone house, of his hundred acres, his pastoral dream realized.
Then a new phase of history intervenes -- the 60’s erupt in assassinations, the Vietnam War, the uprising of youth from proscribed patterns of conduct. Newark burns. His daughter becomes so radicalized that she plants a bomb in a local post office that kills a man. She goes underground. The consequences of her actions and of forces over which the Swede has no control tear his life apart. History has come for them: “Yes, the breach has been pounded in their fortification, even out here in secure Old Rimrock, and now that it was opened it would not be closed again (423).” Roth tells the subversive truths: our myth of exceptionality is only a myth; goodness counts but it will not save us; no one is immune to the convulsions of the world. I love this book and these late works. Roth has crafted his sentences into muscle and bone. All the efflorescence is gone, the stylistic tricks. He writes simply in describing the enormous complexity of how the personal fits into the life of the city and nation.
I am so sorry that he is gone, but we have his books, and those are wonderful.
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