American Not-So-Pastoral

I have been obsessed with a novel and the film version of it, which will be released in October. It’s Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. It has a loose plot, but it’s really about the stresses placed on a reasonable man by horrific events. The man is a symbol for America.

It is the 1960s. The main character is Seymour Levov. Star athlete in high school, Seymour, though Jewish, looks so Nordic that everyone calls him the Swede. The Swede has a perfect life. He is married to a former Miss New Jersey, he runs a successful business, he has a beautiful home in the country, everybody likes him. That is, everybody but his daughter, Meredith, known ironically as Merry. A bright, charming child with a stutter, Merry becomes the teenager from Hell. She is angry about the Vietnam War, starts hanging out with communist revolutionaries and constantly defies and insults her parents.

Acting on the New Left injunction to bring the war home, i.e. to cause civil unrest in the U.S. as a protest against America’s involvement overseas, Merry blows up a post office in her sleepy rural village. The blast goes off at 5 am when the post office is closed, but an unlucky man, a universally loved doctor, is there mailing a letter on his way to work. He is instantly killed. Merry goes underground.

From there it gets more horrible. I won’t divulge the details, though I will discuss some of the themes. The Swede is baffled by what happened and drives himself crazy looking for an explanation. This parallels liberal America’s puzzlement over why their boomer children turned against them. Roth doesn’t settle for easy answers and we follow the Swede’s impressions, memories, anguish and confusion for most of the story.

There are two explanations for Merry’s descent into violence hinted at by Roth that I personally find convincing, although it’s not clear that Roth thinks we ought to settle on them. The first is that Merry and by extension her generation have been raised with no clear values. As the Swede’s brother says, the Swede is post-Jewish, his wife is post-Catholic and they moved into the country expecting to raise post-toasties. (Post Toasties were a popular breakfast cereal, a competitor to Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and just as bland.) The Swede loves being an American and is grateful for the opportunities he has been given, but his notion of America has no intellectual content. It’s just baseball and serving in the Marines. He has never really thought for himself, perhaps because up until his forties, his luck had been so good, he never had to. He is coasting on the immigrant narrative of his recent forebears. His daughter, however, is an American vacuum waiting to be filled.

American icon Andy Griffith endorses the All-American cereal.

And this brings us to Roth’s second explanation of Merry’s rebellion. Merry is “selfless”, presumably because she contains a vacuum. She tries to become a mini-Audrey Hepburn as a little girl, she briefly adopts her grandmother’s Catholicism in her tweens, she becomes a violent leftist as a teenager and finally she becomes a religious fanatic, which the Swede learns about in a sequence too awful to describe.

The implication is that Merry became a political militant because that was what was in the air when she was an adolescent angry about her stutter. Her father and mother have nothing of substance with which to counter this transformation. You can see how this parallels one of America’s timelines: from vapid “Americanism” in the 1950s to political and cultural fanaticism in the 1960s to religious fanaticism in the 1970s. One reason why the book resonates with me is that I saw something a similar timeline in the lives of several people I have loved.

Roth’s novel is not for everyone. It is slow getting to the main story, it spends a lot of time inside the Swede’s head following his impressions and recollections, and the prose is dense with long paragraphs. It is not interested in the linear plot so much as in character and theme. On the other hand, it is searingly earnest (especially for Roth, who often deals in rabelaisian irony) and its descriptions are vivid and on target.

One thing I like about it is that it doesn’t tell you what to think. There is no character whose point-of-view you can fully identify with. You have to work to tease out the truth. And truth for Roth is not easy to come by. Sometimes the best you can do is to create a narrative and hope to learn from it.

Some readers may prefer the movie version, which comes out in October. Here is a trailer. A friend of mine felt that the trailer was cryptic and creepy. I assure you the movie will not be cryptic, but it definitely will have some creepy and painful moments. You can find the same qualities in Shakespeare, so hopefully that won’t put you off. In any case, it is a fascinating story about how America, without a solid foundation in ideas, cannot defend itself or its children.

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