Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Reading Rainbow: American Pastoral by Philip Roth

For reasons that are entirely beyond explanation, American Pastoral marked my first foray into the writings of Philip Roth. I majored in English. I read fairly heavily--certainly by today's standards. When I am moving at my best reading clip, I read about a book per week. Yet I had never read anything by "the greatest living American author".

Whether or not that oft-attached modifier is apropos, I have yet to come to decide for myself, but American Pastoral had enough going for it that I can at least see the grounds by which one may make that argument and not be insanely off base.

American Pastoral tells the tale of how a senseless act of violence can ruin a family. It picks up as Nathan Zuckerman (Roth's alter-ego) is attending his 45th high school reunion and happens to have recently crossed paths with Seymour "Swede" Levov, the blond-haired Jewish high school sports god from his youth. The Swede lived a pretty charmed life and did everything right. He married Miss New Jersey. He successfully took over his father's business when he came of age and moved out to the Jersey countryside to raise his family. At the reunion, Nathan discovers that The Swede died shortly after the two had met and that in 1968, the Swede's daughter had set off a bomb in the idyllic small town of Old Rimrock, killing one in an attempt to bring the war home

From there on, Zuckerman explores the Swede's past in an ultimately futile search to bring reason and understanding to his daughter's act of violence, which is--in totality--senseless.

There is a love that Roth clearly has for all of his characters. An impartiality, too. His journey into the destruction of the American dream is stirring, heartbreaking, and mesmerizing. While his prose does occasionally run long, with adherence to standard sentence structure furthest from his mind both in the writing and editing phase, his thoughts never get so labyrinthine as to prohibit the reader from coming out on the other side. It certainly is not light reading, but it never gets anywhere near the laborious nature of, say, Thomas Pynchon or James Joyce.

American Pastoral took me a little longer than I would have liked, but I certainly do not intend to put off reading the next Roth book I have picked up recently, The Plot Against America, even with the knowledge in hand that it may not be the quickest of reads. So if you have not read American Pastoral, I think it works well.

But don't take my word for it...

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