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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

American Pastoral

Philip Roth

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Title: American Pastoral
Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997
Length: 423 pages
Availability: American Pastoral - US
American Pastoral - UK
American Pastoral - Canada
American Pastoral - India
Pastorale américaine - France
Amerikanisches Idyll - Deutschland
Pastorale americana - Italia
Pastoral americana - España
  • Pulitzer Prize, 1998
  • American Pastoral was made into a film in 2016, directed by Ewan McGregor and starring Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Connelly, and ... Ewan McGregor

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Our Assessment:

B+ : impressive in telling and sweep, but also gets too caught up in both

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 6/1997 Ralph Lombreglia
The Economist . 22/5/1997 .
The Independent . 30/5/1997 Laurie Taylor
The Independent . 7/6/1997 Gerald Jacobs
London Rev. of Books . 3/7/1997 Dale Peck
The NY Rev. of Books . 12/6/1997 Elizabeth Hardwick
The New Republic . 7/7/1997 Robert Boyers
The NY Times . 15/4/1997 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/4/1997 Michael Wood
The Observer A+ 25/5/1997 Tim Adams
San Francisco Chronicle B- 20/4/1997 Joshua Kosman
The Spectator . 30/5/1997 Philip Hensher
Sunday Times . 1/6/1997 Peter Kemp
The Telegraph . 31/5/1997 .
TLS . 6/6/1997 Paul Quinn
The Washington Post A+ 8/6/1997 Donna Rifkind

  Review Consensus:

  Generally very impressed, though not all entirely convinced

  From the Reviews:
  • "The abstracted treatment of ideas, the weighty, morally serious exposition, result in a novel that holds its material at arm's length from the reader. (...) Such techniques make much of American Pastoral feel like notes toward a novel rather than a novel itself." - Ralph Lombreglia, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "Philip Roth writes beautifully, and without false sympathy, about all that Swede Levov stands for but his daughter rejects. (...) This is a novel without illusions, but with much power and sense of time and place" - The Economist

  • "With all his usual verve, Roth teases out the paradoxes raised by this parental nightmare: how the optimism and certainty of American life have been replaced by self-destructive turmoil." - Laurie Taylor, The Independent

  • "While the book is, almost from beginning to end, an open wound, it is a rigorously realised work of profundity and colour, marked by passages of searing beauty. It is even something of an artistic mission statement for which, perhaps, it needed Zuckerman, as much as it needed him to bring alive the magnificent character of the Swede." - Gerald Jacobs, The Independent

  • "American Pastoral is more than an examination of virtue, more than an attack on the delusoriness of liberal good intentions. Roth means it also to be a portrait of America. (...) The failure of Roth’s novel, in this respect, is quite considerable, however unmistakably particular passages are the work of a master. If there is such a thing as the indigenous American berserk, then surely it must entail a good deal more than a lunatic fringe largely limited to deranged adolescents acting out fantasies of retributive violence. (...) Roth’s novel is finally not an adequate study of social disorder. It does not tell us what we need to know about America (.....) And yet Roth’s interest in an idea of simple virtue is an impressive achievement." - Robert Boyers, The New Republic

  • "(O)ne of Mr. Roth's most powerful novels ever, a big, rough-hewn work built on a grand design, a book that is as moving, generous and ambitious as his last novel, Sabbath's Theater, was sour, solipsistic and narrow. (...) Although Mr. Roth sometimes works too hard to turn Seymour into a symbol (he is shown imitating Johnny Appleseed and is compared to John F. Kennedy), although his efforts to encompass three generations of history are occasionally strained, Pastoral is far more fluent, far more emotionally tactile than the novel's broader outline suggests. Writing less in anger than in sorrow, Mr. Roth uses his sharp, reportorial eye not to satirize his characters but to flesh them out from within." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "American Pastoral is a little slow -- as befits its crumbling subject, but unmistakably slow all the same -- and I must say I miss Zuckerman's manic energies. But the mixture of rage and elegy in the book is remarkable, and you have only to pause over the prose to feel how beautifully it is elaborated, to see that Mr. Roth didn't entirely abandon Henry James after all." - Michael Wood, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Roth has long been a master of the rip-tide dynamics of mania; but here, for the most part, he details the studied avoidance of conflict (.....) Few writers are capable of raising themselves to the technical heights achieved in the climactic scene here, a 100-page account of a dinner party; hardly any are able with such authority to measure what America has become against what it once seemed capable of." - Tim Adams, The Observer

  • "(P)otent but unsatisfying (...) These questions, of course, are never answered. But in the course of the exploration, Roth attempts his most meticulous portrait to date of this American century -- or at least that chapter of it that pertains to first- and second-generation American Jews. (...) Part of the problem is the book's blocky formal structure, a sequence of fascinating but self- contained riffs." - Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "American Pastoral is as technically skilled as anything Roth has written, but with a grander, less hectoring feel to it. (...) The beauty of the book is in its solidity of detail. It is harder than it looks to get details exactly right; Roth is someone who can effortlessly summon inert details and make an imagined life real. (...) It is not a comforting book, and, like all of Roth's books, it is not a novel that one would return to willingly. It is admirable, oppressive and moving; perhaps that ought to be enough." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator

  • "The resulting chronicle -- brilliantly written, packed with gripping social and psychological detail, angry, grieving, witty, acute -- encompasses three generations of American-Jewish life." - Peter Kemp, Sunday Times

  • "Roth for the first time in his fiction gives us a thoroughly conformist hero, a Jewish-American good guy of his own born-in-the-Thirties generation, one who declined to break free of his background, go his own way, shock his forebears, and so on." - The Telegraph

  • "Not for nothing is glove-making the Levov family vocation. Throughout the book, the characters wear masks, wrap themselves in skins, assume predesigned roles. (...) (I)t is the saving humility of the novel that ultimately impresses, its awareness that getting it wrong is inevitable, even when the attempt to get it right is what drives us." - Paul Quinn, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Roth's greater triumph here, in what is possibly the finest work of his career, is the thoroughness and intensity with which he plumbs the souls of his characters. One senses he's not so much writing about them as feeling them, probing every inch of their pain. And yet despite the compassion in his characterizations -- even the despicable Merry is a lost, pitiful child -- Roth's theme about the fundamental mysteriousness of people is achingly clear." - Donna Rifkind, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The first sentence in American Pastoral is simply the two-word statement: "The Swede." The novel is yet another Roth novel narrated by writer Nathan Zuckerman, and while he dominates the first section of the three-act novel, 'Paradise Remembered', that only leads up to what this really is: 'the Swede's' story. In the latter two sections of the book Zuckerman no longer figures, the "realistic chronicle" he begins to dream up in the first part -- entirely the Swede's story -- making up the rest of the novel.
       'The Swede' is the nickname given to fourteen-year-old high school freshman Seymour Irving Levov by a phys ed teacher, to differentiate him from two other Seymours, and it sticks. And while the athletically gifted Seymour would have stood out anyway, the nickname marked and defined him; it was:

a name that made him mythic in a way that Seymour would never have done, mythic not only during his school years but to his schoolmates, in memory for the rest of their days.
       Back the, in the 1940s, almost half a century ago, Zuckerman was one of those schoolmates -- though not a classmate. A few years younger than the Swede, he was friend's with his younger brother, Jerry, and, like everyone at their Weequahic (Newark) school and indeed in the community in general, idolized the larger than life youngster. A three-sport stand-out athlete, the Swede would add to his myth by joining the Marines -- though escaping actual combat because the war ended before he could get to it -- and then marrying Miss New Jersey ("A shiksa. Dawn Dyer. He'd done it"). Unlike his brother -- who became a(n oft-divorced) cardiac surgeon in Florida -- the Swede returned to the fold, local boy making good by going into and eventually taking over the family business, Newark Maid, a glove manufacturer. Doing business suited him like a glove, too -- he maintained his seductive ways, easily winning buyers over -- and the Swede's seemed the all-American success story.
       Zuckerman briefly encounters the Swede in 1985, and then again in 1995, when the Swede invites him for lunch, ostensibly to talk about a tribute he wants to write to his father, who recently passed away. Zuckerman is of course curious to see up-close who the Swede now is, nearly half a century after their school days. The Swede fills him in, and the all-American success story still seems more or less intact -- though Zuckerman comes away from the meeting thinking that: "This guy is the embodiment of nothing". The Swede still seems impressively larger than life -- but also all shell and surface:
I kept waiting for him to lay bare something more than this pointed unobjectableness, but all that rose to the surface was more surface. What he has instead of a being, I thought, is blandness -- the guy's radiant with it. He has devised for himself an incognito, and the incognito has become him.
       A few months later, Zuckerman, giving in to more nostalgia (he's been feeling it even more since the prostate surgery that's left him impotent and incontinent), goes to his forty-fifth high school reunion, and learns more about the Swede. Jerry happens to be there too, and can fill him in on the most important details -- quickly showing Zuckerman just how much he missed at that lunch. For one, the Swede hadn't conquered cancer, but was being eaten up by it, and now is no longer; that's why Jerry's in the neighborhood, for the funeral. For another, there was a tragedy in the Swede's life that Zuckerman was (rather surprisingly -- you'd think someone would have mentioned it over the years) unaware of: in 1968, the Swede's sixteen-year-old daughter Meredith (known, of course, as 'Merry') bombed the local post office and general store, killing -- accidentally or not -- a doctor in the process. She became the 'Rimrock Bomber', and a fugitive from justice -- and the great tragedy of the Swede's life.
       It is this information, and the whole different light it puts on the Swede, that inspires Zuckerman, leading him to a (re)imagining of the Swede's life, an exercise in mythmaking that now lets him shape and see the man and myth completely differently. The Swede had played his part in the ongoing American dream, the baton passing from his hardworking and controlling father, who had made good and built the business into something impressive, and the Swede carrying on, from youth on, like a poster-boy for and of the American dream. And he loved the part -- "he loved America. Loved being an American". He see himself following and acting out that American dream -- sees himself like some modern-day Johnny Appleseed, boundless in energy, ambition, and love of what this country stands for, reveling even in the: "pure, buoyant unrestrained pleasure of striding" because each step is meaningful to him. (Of course, here and throughout we do well to remember that all this is not necessarily how the Swede saw himself, and things; it is how Zuckerman, in (re)creating him, wants to imagine it.)
       It went south, of course, that American dream. There was the Vietnam War. And, locally, the Newark riots and competition meant the glove-making operations drifted elsewhere: they set up a plant in Puerto Rico; for a while they even did business in Communist Czechoslovakia.
       The Levov's (American) hometown of Newark is an epicenter of the American collapse: "the late city of Newark", the Swede's father calls it in the early 1970s, certain that: "Newark will be the city that never comes back. It can't." The Swede already moved on before the collapse was coming, moving the family to what he saw as the frontier, a hundred-acre estate in Old Rimrock, when Merry was a baby. He commuted to work, to the factory in Newark, but this was his new frontier:
What was Mars to his father was America to him -- he was settling Revolutionary New Jersey as if for the first time. Out in Old Rimrock, all of America lay at their door.
       Of course, he was also deluding himself -- turning a blind eye to the reactionary history of the place, the Klan, the anti-Semitic (and most other immigrant groups) sentiments, the deeply ingrained ugly Republicanism of it ..... This was where Merry was raised. And one of the things she turned against -- stoked by the increasingly violent anti-establishmentarianism in the air and on the streets as she grew up, and the outrages being perpetrated in Vietnam.
       Rebellious, stuttering Merry began to go her own way early, escaping to the nearby big city -- New York --, not keeping her parents in the loop as to who she was associating with -- and then doing the unthinkable (even as it was planned as so small-scale, and local), and then going (successfully) on the run.
       By the time the Swede finds Merry again, five years later, she's been through -- and done -- a lot, and now lives (willingly) in direst of circumstances. She engaged in further acts of terrorism while on the run, but now has embraced the Jain faith and is literally unwilling to hurt a fly; she's practically starving herself, too, physically withering away. (But she no longer stutters.)
       Roth circles around events repeatedly in the book, but especially in the final section he settles down -- at a family Thanksgiving, the all-Americannest of holidays (though the Swede serves up bloody steaks rather than the traditional turkey ...) -- and examines up-close the familial devastation Merry has caused -- and how it is symptomatic for the American collapse of those years. In the years after they lost their child Dawn got a facelift, as if that could change appearances; "Erased all that suffering. He gave her back her face", the Swede deludes himself into thinking -- but brother Jerry has his number, throwing in his face: "Why do you do everything ? For the appearance !" The real rot -- and starving, unwashed Merry is rotted to the core -- can not be redeemed or whitewashed, regardless of how the Swede spins it or tries to convince himself to see it. As Jerry also tells him:
With the help of your daughter you're as deep in the shit as a man can get, the real American crazy shit. America amok ! America amuck !
       "He is our Kennedy", Zuckerman suggests at one point about the Swede, and treats him and his story in a similar fashion, not just for what it is but also everything it can stand for; hence also, among much else, the novel-title, American Pastoral. Roth swirls around his subject matter -- most appealingly early on, when Zuckerman is not just narrating but also part of the story, more forcefully when he turns the story over entirely to his (re)invented Swede. American Pastoral is ambitious, and ambitious in its message; it practically drips with message. Roth goes big here: throughout he wants to show the national refracted in the small-domestic -- but he can't keep himself from going big, at so many turns. The novel is bursting with energy -- as well as grief and rage --, at times distractingly so. And despite it all, Roth also can't hold himself back from spelling out explanations, from a merciless one about the possible reasons behind Merry's stutter to Jerry's no-nonsense hectoring.
       Roth does so much so damn well -- the asides about glove-making, most obviously, but really most of the details -- but he almost can't contain himself and his story, even as he repeatedly tries to pull it back to a few limited slices of history, to a smaller frame. But it continues to burst free. Arguably parts are under-developed, too -- Merry, for one: it's understandable the Swede doesn't get it all, but there could still be more to it, as indeed there could be generally to the forces in play, especially those flaring up in the late 1960s and early 70s, as in this regard the novel feels rather one-sided (not entirely unreasonably, given Roth's approach and focus, but it still leaves it listing somewhat awkwardly to one side).
       American Pastoral is an impressive work, and a very lively read -- but it seems, too obviously, to be trying to reach for so much, and it can't quite reach it all.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 October 2016

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American Pastoral: Reviews: American Pastoral - the film: Philip Roth: Other books by Philip Roth under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Philip Roth (1933-2018) wrote many highly acclaimed works and won numerous literary prizes.

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