Wednesday, October 19, 2011

american pastoral

pas·tor·al - n. (Literary & Literary Critical Terms) (of a literary work) dealing with an idealized form of rural existence in a conventional way.

Seymour "The Swede" Levov is a tall, blonde, blue-eyed Jew from a hard-working family in Newark, New Jersey. A family of immigrants who, after years of effort, have finally made it. Swede has taken over the family glove business from his now retired father--who has gone to live in Florida--and the Swede has grown the family business, married well, and moved to his dream house in the country; the setting for this American Pastoral, by Philip Roth.

This is my first Philip Roth novel, and its been on my list for a while. Reading it reminds me that I have not yet achieved the level of 'serious reader'. Oh I read it, every word, but it was slow. This novel is a thought-provoking and intensely contempletive examination of the American Dream, what it can mean, and how it can go wrong.

At its core, American Pastoral is The Monkey's Paw. You know, that creepy, fire-side tale (or bedtime story, if you grew up in my American Dream) about getting what you wish for, but not exactly in the way you imagined. It doesn't have that adrenalin-pumping, return-of-the-living-dead, something-cold-and-wet-touching-your-face-in-the-dark feeling you'd expect if this was actually just a retelling of the Monkey's Paw story. Stephen King: I'm looking at you.

The Swede succeeds in removing his family from the post-apocalyptic setting of Newark after the riots, to a lush, country manor in Old Rimrock, New Jersey. His idyllic country life can't save him and his family from the realities of modern America, however. Roth examines how people who have achieved the ultimate goal of the American Dream, can fall victim to their own isolationism by failing to understand that they aren't safe from the realities of modern America, even surrounded by a hundred acres of rolling farmland and neighbors who can trace their heritage to the origins of America.

Finally, I would be remiss not to acknowledge Roth's pastoral joke.

Slow but good. Well written, but you need to be serious about examining the inner lives of normal folks, and how they live, interact, and strive in America today, and in the recent past. There is a lot to chew on in this story. I read the Lizard of Oz in the middle of this, to get a break, but it was worth the effort.

1 comment:

Say it, I want to hear it...