Picks and Pans Review: American Pastoral
by Philip Roth
It’s hardly timely. Its structure is counterchronological. And it’s slowed down considerably by Roth’s frequent digression into the problems of being Jewish in America. But this gripping, emotionally charged novel is as penetrating a fictional approach to the domestic effects of the Vietnam War as anyone is likely to devise.
The protagonist is Seymour “the Swede” Levov, a self-righteous New Jersey factory owner, a former star athlete and ex-Marine who married a beauty queen and considers himself a prime defender—and model—of the American dream. That is, until his beloved teenage daughter Merry turns militant over the war and blows up a small store in Newark because it houses a post office.
Much of the narrative involves Levov’s search for Merry, who goes underground after the bombing, and his incessant agonizing over his role in turning his daughter—whom he once kissed with more than paternal passion—into a radical.
Roth tells the story in lumpy prose made clumsier by capricious leaps between flashbacks and ongoing narrative. His language is littered with gratuitous, obfuscatory uses of Yiddish—and he lapses into frequent vulgarity. Still, Levov’s anguish is moving, especially when he tracks Merry down in a Newark slum. And Roth supports him with an array of convincing characters. The deterioration of the Levov family is a microcosmic detail of the devastation Vietnam wrought on American society. If it’s 25 or so years behind the news, better late than never. (Houghton Mifflin, $26)