Wednesday, May 16, 2007

On Phillip Roth's American Pastoral

I just finished Phillip Roth's Pulitzer prize winning novel American Pastoral, and didn't particularly care for it at all. Actually, I wondered how this novel could ever win the Pulitzer Prize at all. The novel is about Swede Lubov, a Jewish star high school athlete in the 1940s during World War II. To his Jewish classmates the Swede, blond and blue eyed, is their bright shining hope during the dark years of the year. I liked the first 20 or two pages talking about Swede's high school years as the characters reminded me of some of my family members who wanted to assimilate into mainstream America.

Then Swede goes into the Marines, marries Miss New Jersey of 1949, takes over his dad's glover factory, buys 100 acres and an old stone house he loves in rural wealthy WASP New Jersey, and has a perfect 1950s suburban life until his teenage daughter Merry during the 1960s becomes a radical and drops a bomb at the local post office killing a doctor. The bomb also blows apart Swede's perfect life. The problem is Merry and her radical friend are the worst sort of caricatures--crazy, arrogant, spiteful, obscene. Roth neither has knowledge of nor sympathy about the 1960s. The nutty daughter is a flat stereotype and hardly a foil for Swede as the personification of the middle class American life. A 1960s nut could exist, but each generation has its nuts. In a fiction you need characters that come alive, and the daughter really doesn’t. So for hundreds of pages Swede muses what he did wrong as his life unravels. At one point after not seeing his daughter for 5 years Swede hears that she is in Newark again so takes 50 pages of thinking to decided if he wants to see her. The fifty pages should have been cut to about 10 pp.

The novel is good in patches: it's good about the characters growing up in the 1940s and it's good when the same characters get together in the 1975 for a dinner party at Swede's suburban house where they rant against Nixon and debate Linda Lovelace's porn movie Deep Throat. The grandfather can’t stand the porn movie but some of the middle aged generation—Swede’s generation of successful middle class middle aged—defend the movie. What’s amusing is that Swede Lubov and his friends are influenced by the younger generation’s greater honesty about sex but they never acknowledge the influence. One can argue that Phillip Roth as well as John Updike were influenced by the 1960s generation to be more open and honest about sex in their novels but this influence hasn’t been acknowledged.

Roth’s novel really skips over the 1960s except for one crazy bombing by Swede's daughter. As Swede's father asks about what has happened to our Jewish kids in the 1960s, neither Swede, nor any character, nor the novelist has the slightest answer.

One reason why the Pulitzer Committee gave the award to this novel was suggested on amazon.com: good novelists who have been overlooked get the prize even for their lousy work. Oh well.

1 comment:

Mark Russell said...

The Swede's last name is Levov.