The New Canon is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on great works of fiction published since 1985. These books represent the finest literature of the current era, and are gaining recognition as the new classics of our time. In this installment of The New Canon, Gioia looks at American Pastoral by Philip Roth.
Sometimes even familiar writers can surprise you. Who would have predicted that Truman Capote, by then a quasi-comic presence on TV talk shows, would deliver such a poised and controlled masterpiece as In Cold Blood? Who would have believed that Ken Kesey would take a long enough break from hallucinogenic drugs and Merry Prankster-dom to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion? Who would have guessed that J.D. Salinger would live to the ripe age of 90, but stop publishing for the last 45 of those years?
And then there is the case of Philip Roth...
Most people sizing up Mr. Roth’s oeuvre at the time of his 40th birthday (back in 1973) would probably have pigeonholed him as a literary representative of the sexual revolution or perhaps as a connoisseur of taboo and quasi-neurotic strains in American life. Mr. Roth had just published The Breast, sort of a genitalia-ized alternative to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, in which his protagonist turns into a large mammary gland. And his best known and biggest-selling book, Portnoy’s Complaint, did for onanism what Mario Puzo (author of the second best selling novel of 1969 behind Roth’s work) did for gangster stories.
Portnoy’s Complaint was banned in Australia and morphed into a punchline for jokes. When Dick Cavett quipped that one of his male guests needed to cancel his appearance on his show because “he was suffering from Portnoy’s complaint,” the network censors cut the witticism from the broadcast. In a memorable bon mot, Jacqueline Susann noted her interest in meeting Roth, but added: “I wouldn’t want to shake his hand.”
Yet by the time we get to American Pastoral (1997), a different side of Roth has apparently emerged. His protagonist here is the exact opposite of what we have come to expect in our Roth heroes. Seymour “Swede” Levov is a high school sports legend who has grown up to embody almost every aspect of the American dream. He is married to a former Miss New Jersey, operates a successful business, and comes across as a bastion of propriety and stability—almost a poster boy for happy and uncomplicated Jewish assimilation into the mainstream of American life.