American Pastoral

by Philip Roth

This great novel, the first of Roth's Zuckerman trilogy, begins with the narrator, Skip Zuckerman, bumping into his boyhood idol at a baseball game. The 'Swede' seems to Skip to embody everything that is wholesome, decent and heroic in American life. He was a small-town sports jock - tall, handsome and athletic - and blonde in a Jewish community in Newark, New Jersey, where many of the families had originally emigrated from Eastern Europe.

Despite hints to the contrary, Skip clings to his belief that his hero has led the 'perfect life' and it is only when the Swede's brother sets him straight at a high school reunion, that Skip begins to see the truth behind the social veneer. His obsession with the Swede then prompts Skip to reconstruct the events of the man's life and gradually the secrets that underpin it are unearthed.

The Swede, after excelling as a young man on the sports field, takes over his father's glove-making factory and marries Miss New Jersey. The beautiful couple have one daughter, Merry, and that's where the trouble begins. Roth is brilliant on family relationships and his insights into the father/daughter dynamic are especially poignant.
In many ways the Swede represents the attitudes and beliefs of the America of the Fifties and his story personifies Roth's own ambivalence towards the values of that time and their erosion over the following decades.

American Pastoral is a very sad novel, not least because it deals largely with the profound loneliness of the human condition - our inability, ultimately, to connect wholly with other people. As Skip puts it,

'And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we to envision one another's interior workings and invisible aims?.......The fact is that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong.'


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