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The New Canon: American Pastoral by Philip Roth

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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.

The book is narrated by Roth’s most famous character outside of Alexander Portnoy, Nathan Zuckerman, a writer and fictional alter ego for Philip Roth. Levov was a boyhood hero of Zuckerman’s, a role model due to his smooth navigation through almost every arena for male competitiveness, from the sports field to the business world. Zuckerman is intensely curious about Levov, and wants to find out what this type of triumphant pastoral life is really like.

Zuckerman is given only a few firsthand glimpses behind Levov’s smooth façade—and these encounters tell him little. It is not until he runs into the Swede’s younger brother at a 45th year high school reunion that Zuckerman begins to understand the story behind the story. He comes to learn how the man who apparently “had it all” became a tragic victim of circumstances beyond his control, facing challenges that no amount of on-court footwork or off-court self-discipline would overcome.

Much of the hypnotic power of this book derives from the mismatch between Zuckerman’s entrenched image of the Swede, and the realities of Levov’s life. ''I was wrong,'' Zuckerman announces at one point. ''Never more mistaken about anyone in my life.'' Few novels are more acute in revealing our propensity for seeing what we want to see, and how reluctantly we recalibrate our vision in the face of new learnings. In this regard, American Pastoral joins those exquisite fictions of the past—Emma, Bouvard et Pécuchet and The Golden Bowl come to mind—that force us into painful examination of our stubborn insistence on deceiving ourselves.

Seymour (the Swede) Masin, the prototype for Swede Levov in American Pastoral, was still alive when Roth’s novel was published (although he subsequently died in 2005). Masin, who attended Weequahic High School almost a decade before Roth, was New Jersey shot put champion, captain of his college soccer team, and selected as the best basketball player in the state. Masin himself noted both the uncharacteristic aspect of this Roth protagonist, as well as its vivid realism: “Roth portrayed me as a decent, good guy, which I think is unusual for him to do.” Masin’s life evolved differently than Levov, but the real-world Swede adds: "It's amazing, but almost everything in the book I would have done if I'd been in those situations."

The fictional Swede Levov, as it turns out, will find his pastoral enjoyment of the American dream rudely interrupted by both political and personal events. Roth adroitly mixes historical events into his story, and though he has often found a way to infuse his narratives with the resonance of period news items, he outdoes himself in this instance. Levov watches on hopelessly as his daughter Merry moves from a philosophical opposition to the Vietnam War into more and more volatile reactions. In time, she embraces violence as a means of countering violence. She is linked to a bombing at a post office that kills an innocent bystander, and goes underground to avoid arrest.

Levov’s attempts to find his daughter leave him exposed to manipulation and exploitation. This once confident man, a walking and talking exponent of the American Dream, is now enmeshed in the worst aspects of the American nightmare of the turbulent 1960s. But Roth tightens his noose even more. Levov needs to deal with an unfaithful wife, his precarious health, race riots that impact his glove factory, and — most horrifically — a reunion with his daughter that only serves to plunge him more deeply into panic and confusion.

This is a brilliant novel on a grand scale. You can marvel here at the most delicate effects — Levov’s visitor tour of his glove factory could almost serve as a case study in how a great novelist handles the smallest details with loving precision — but it is the big picture vision that you will remember long after you have finished this panoramic book. Other novelists may celebrate the American dream or dismiss it a ruse, but Roth avoids both extremes in a nuanced work that deconstructs our ideals and exposes their vulnerabilities, while still keeping them intact. And if this doesn’t add up to the The Great American Novel (which is coincidentally is the name of the book Roth wrote the year he turned forty), it gets pretty darn close.

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About Ted Gioia

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    I remember it being a very compelling novel, but I sure didn’t find myself willing to put it in the same high company you do. Also, I thought he went overboard on the details regarding glove-making. Research is one thing, but there were passages that sounded copied from a manual.

  • Mary

    I heard a rumor that a book is coming out about Seymour “the Swede” Masin (the inspiration for Roth’s Swede Levov). Does anyone know if this is true and if so, when it will be released?

  • Bob Masin

    Mary, I recently completed writing a book about my father, Seymour “Swede” Masin. It is currently going through the editing process; the final product is probably a couple of months away.

    There is a common thread throughout the book about my father’s growing up in Newark’s Weequahic section, his extraordinary physical power and athleticism, combined with his genteel nature. There is a full chapter dedicated to the fun he had when American Pastoral was released, his meeting Philip Roth, and the attention he received. The book is entitled “SWEDE, Weequahic’s Gentle Giant”. Thanks, Bob Masin

  • howard moshinsky

    one must compliment PHIL ROTH on all the books he has given us in american pastoral he never wavered in following the line dont let the facts get in the way of the story

  • Howard Moshinsky

    BOB ITS HRE AT LAST THE BOOK YOU PROMISED US HE WAS THE HERO WHO LIVED IN THE ‘shetl’
    CALLED WEEQUAHIC BUT WE SHOULD NOT LOSE THE LEGEND HE LEFT AT MONTCLAIR STATE TEACHERS COLLEGE REGARDING THE TRULY FANTASTIC YEARS AT PANZER WITH HIS FRIEND BELLEVILLES HERMAN KNUPPEL

    ALL THE BEST HOWARD MOSHINSKY

  • Bob Knuppel

    Mr.Moshinsky, My father was Herman Knuppel. He was the 6’8″ center of the record setting Panzer College basketball team.
    While I believe my father’s height brought him critical acclaim, he always talked about Swede. Swede, he recalled was the best player on the team and the best all-around athlete he had ever known. Furthermore, Swede was apparently competitive and gracious.
    Roth would relish the close friendship between the German and Jew.
    The picture of the Panzer Team always hangs in my den.
    My Best to you all…Thank you for the nostalgic moment.

  • howard moshinsky

    bob knuppel

    bob i had lived in belleville many years ago after jitty wische had coached some good basketball teams

    your dad i think was teaching at BELLEVILLE HS

    NICE TO KNOW THOSE PANZER DAYS ARE REMEMBERED AND RESPECTED

    HOWARD

  • Bob Masin

    Bob Knuppel, it was wonderful reading your kind words about my father. I used to hear about Herman Knuppel all the time from Swede. The big guy must have been unstoppable.
    Swede attended your dad’s funeral (in Pennsylvania?), and met your mother for the first time…she was extremely gracious. If you ever get to Portland, Or., let’s have a beer. Regards, Bob Masin