Thoughts on Reading American Pastoral by Philip Roth

When I was a young author, the books I enjoyed influenced the style of my writing. Just like imitating someone’s accent, my prose captured the defining traits of the novelist under whose spell I was, whether I wanted it or not. It was an echo in my head that found its way onto my page. Now that I’ve matured — as a writer, I mean, not just in age — this does not happen anymore. I now read less than I did when I was younger, and I am very selective, choosing mostly general fiction and staying away from other genres like romance, sci-fi, memoirs or historic novels. I read slowly, and often, if I don’t like how a book begins, I give up. On the other hand, if I enjoy the book, I read passages from it again and again.

I started American Pastoral by Philip Roth in July, gave up, skip-read Portnoy’s Complaint, and then took it up one more time. The book had great moments, but I found reading it a struggle.

There were several reasons I persisted. First, I have a lot of respect for Philip Roth. Over the years, I have read a number of his books and I appreciated all of them. Of his generation of great American writers — Updike, Below and Roth — I read Roth the most. Second, a good friend of mine recommended American Pastoral to me, and I trust his opinion and taste. When I told him I had stopped reading it, he smiled and suggested I should persist. Third, during my first attempt, I reached a point where Roth (Nathan Zuckerman in the novel) describes his 45th high school reunion. Three months ago, I attended my 50th high school reunion and, as strange (and flattering) as this is, I found, in this account, a personal emotional connection to Philip Roth. Finally, on my second attempt, the novel caught me in its grip. I learned to appreciate the heavy sentences — and I mean ‘heavy,’ not just as in complicated and long, but in the sense that the power of the words physically weighed on me — and I found myself caring for the Swede, the main character, and engrossed in the story.

Here is one of the ‘heavy’ sentences, which abound, describing the factory hall where they prepared the skins to make gloves: “The tannery that stank of both the slaughterhouse and the chemical plant from the soaking of flesh and the cooking of flesh and the dehairing and pickling and degreasing of hides, where round the clock in the summertime the blowers drying the thousands and thousands of hanging skins raised the temperature in the low-ceilinged dry room to a hundred and twenty degrees, where the vat rooms were dark as caves and flooded with swill, where the brutish workmen, heavily aproned, armed with hooks and staves, dragging and pushing overloaded wagons, wringing and hanging waterlogged skins, were driven like animals through the laborious storm that was a twelve-hour shift — a filthy stinking place awash with water dyed red and black and blue and green, with hunks of skin all over the floor, everywhere pits of grease, hills of salt, barrels of solvent — this was Lou Levov’s high school and college.”

About a decade ago I read a Romanian novel entitled The Children’s Crusade (Cruciada copiilor) by Florina Ilis. In it, the author bypasses traditional orthographical rules and doesn’t use any periods — commas, yes, but no periods. The sentences run on and on, the reader is forced to accept that uninterrupted narration and to adjust to it mentally. The net effect is a vague dizziness, like when drinking, the story becoming hazy and magical all at once. Ilis’ never-ending sentences are a literary trick. She affects the reader because what she does is unexpected, but after a while, one adjusts and the impact diminishes. Roth’s prose (in the quote above and in the entire novel) is nothing like that. His sentences don’t run with you. They don’t trick you; they pull you in. If you lose your way in them, it is because the thoughts they represent twist and turn to describe the subject from several angles at once. They are panoramic.

In short, the novel is about Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov, an accomplished Jewish American athlete and businessman, who, on the surface, represents the perfect American life, with his beautiful former Miss New Jersey wife and his daughter Merry, but goes through a terrible experience that ends up destroying him. The story proceeds in a circular fashion and one hits the point when one understands that something hidden is looming beneath the perfect façade (from which point it starts being interesting) after almost one hundred pages.

Newark, New Jersey, is a character in the book. Roth describes its decay in the sixties: “…when my father bought the factory, a stone’s throw away Kiler made water coolers, Fortgang made fire alarms, Lasky made corsets, Robbins made pillows, Honig made pen points…‘The joint’s jumpin’,’ he [the father] used to say…The major industry now is car theft…Heard of doughnuting? Doing doughnuts? …This is what they steal the cars for. Top speed, they slam on the brakes, yank the emergency brake, twist the steering wheel, and the car starts spinning. Wheeling the car in circles at tremendous speeds. Killing pedestrians means nothing to them. Killing motorists means nothing to them. Killing themselves means nothing to them. The skid marks are enough to frighten you.”

Making quality gloves is the business of the Swede in American Pastoral. I was surprised by the coincidence with an essay, Getting Good by Richard Russo in his recent collection, The Destiny Thief. The essay is about getting good at writing, and Russo talks about his grandfather who was a glove cutter who cared about the quality of his work. Russo described Newark’s decline, and for that matter that of the modern world, in a much simpler way. “When he [Russo’s grandfather] was young and new to his trade, being good still mattered, so getting good was the first imperative. By the time he retired, being good mattered only to him.”

Nothing was good anymore in Newark, after 1969.

In her review of the novel in The New York Times on April 15, 1997, Michiko Kakutani stated that Roth “tackles the very subjects he once spurned as unmanageable: namely what happened to America in the decades between World War II and Vietnam…” If it is true, think about what the Swede’s “vituperative” brother tells the Swede what he thinks of him during their telephone conversation the afternoon the Swede discovered his daughter in a desolate Newark catacomb: “What you are is you’re always trying to smooth everything over. What you are is always trying to be moderate. What you are is never telling the truth if you think it’s going to hurt somebody’s feelings. What you are is you’re always compromising. What you are is always complacent. What you are is always trying to find the bright side of things. The one with the manners. The one who abides everything patiently. The one with the ultimate decorum. The boy who never breaks the code. Whatever society dictates, you do.”

Is this what Roth’s America, our America, has become?

I was amazed by the dexterity of Roth’s storytelling and the abundance of his delivery, by the details coming at me in complete, ever tightening, circles, again and again — about history, politics, Jewishness, sex, parenthood, labor, and feelings.

I tried to compare his novel to others I had read that had recently received Pulitzers: The Goldfinch by Donna Tart, In the Distance by Hernan Diaz and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I also thought about other novels that had impressed me and which I found to be, in my opinion, exceptional: Waking Lions by Israeli Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin, and The Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

I realize that such comparisons cannot be quickly drawn conclusively, but one thing I can say for sure: some, American Pastoral among them, reached my heart through my mind. All the Light We Cannot See and Waking Lions went to my heart directly.

In closing, read this passage from a long and amazing description by Roth of the feelings a father nurtures for his deranged and departed daughter, remembering her when she was a little girl. “The face. That’s the glory. The face that she will not carry with her and that is the fingerprint of the future. The marker that will disappear and yet be there fifty years later. How little of her story is revealed in his child’s face. Its youngness is all he can see. So very new in the cycle. With nothing as yet totally defined, time is so powerfully present in her face. The skull is soft. The flare of the unstructured nose is the whole nose. The color of her eyes. The white, white whiteness. The limpid blue. Eyes unclouded. It’s all unclouded, but the eyes particularly, windows, washed windows with nothing yet of the revelation of what’s within. The history in her brow of the embryo. The dried apricots that are her ears…The preternatural fitness of her hair. The health of it…The smell of the whole day in her hair. The carefreeness, the abandon of that body in his arms. The cat-like abandon to the all-powerful father, the reassuring giant…You protect her and protect her — and she is unprotectable. If you don’t protect her it’s unendurable, if you do protect her it’s unendurable. It’s all unendurable. The awfulness of her terrible autonomy.”

My friend was right: I had to read American Pastoral, and I’m glad I persevered.

Please let me know that you have read this post. Your questions, comments, lots of claps and shares are much appreciated. On Medium the number of claps reflects how much you enjoyed the piece.