Pulitzer Prize, Fiction, 1998
Philip Roth presents a vivid portrait of an innocent man being swept away by a current of conflict and violence in his own backyard - a story that is as much about loving America as it is hating it. Seymour "Swede" Levov, a legendary high school athlete, a devoted family man, a hard worker, and the prosperous heir of his father's Newark glove factory comes of age in thriving, triumphant postwar America. But everything he loves is lost when the country begins to run amok in the turbulent 1960s. Not even a most private, well-intentioned citizen, it seems, gets to sidestep the sweep of history. American Pastoral is the story of a fortunate American's rise and fall ... a strong, confident man, a master of social equilibrium, overwhelmed by the forces of social disorder. For the Swede is not allowed to stay forever blissful living out life in rural Old Rimrock in his 170 year-old stone farmhouse with his pretty wife (his college sweetheart and Miss New Jersey of 1949) and his lively albeit precocious daughter, the apple of his eye ... that is until she grows up to become a revolutionary terrorist.
Audie Award Winner, Best Solo Narration by a Male, 1998
"One of Roth's most powerful novels ever...moving, generous and ambitious...a fiercely affecting work of art." (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times)
"Dazzling...a wrenching, compassionate, intelligent novel...gorgeous." ( Boston Globe)
"At once expansive and painstakingly detailed.... The pages of American Pastoral crackle with the electricity and zest of a first-rate mind at work." ( San Francisco Chronicle)
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Mature, complex, meditative.
A fabulous work of American lit. It fits perfectly in the canon of Steinbeck, McCullers, Fitzgerald, even Hemingway. The themes are familiar and welcoming. Here we have the great obsession, which is becoming increasingly British too, more's the pity, with living a comfortable life, materially replete, but at the same time, anaesthetised, numb to reality. This principle is personified as Seymour 'Swede' Levov, whose calm, laid-back, Johnny Appleseed approach to life is belied by those who share his world. The Swede is like an old cart horse who plods unknowingly along while the world beneath the surface becomes increasingly complex and angst ridden. He is a nexus of tranquillity at the heart of a storm of repressed rage.
Roth writes brilliantly, and nowhere is this more evident than in his handling of dialogue. The natural and fluid expression of thought and feeling is so accomplished. Whole worlds are contained in the lightest exchange. At the heart of this novel is the chimera of the American Dream. It is that trick of the mind that can only be maintained at the cost of blindness to the suffering of others, as much in the small world of family as the larger, more complex, but ultimately equally reactive world of politics and social change. The Swede's gradual and painful awakening is America's too. Herein is the brilliance of the novel, because the Swede is America. He does everything possible to fit, everything within the scope of his prodigious powers of adaptation, to look the part, but it is at the cost of everything authentic and meaningful in his life. Of course this allegory is true for us all, whether we are American or not, so perhaps we should talk here about Westernism, rather than Americanism. The Western Dream has a price, but we do not see it. And when we have seen it, it is already too late because everything we have 'won' has already been tainted by it.
That's hard to isolate, because it is not a novel of "scenes" but rather a gradual and sublime unfoldment. It is a process. We are awakened to reality through the eyes of the Swede.
Not possible. It requires a thoughtful approach. It is at one level a straightforward and intriguing story, but on another level it is a meditation.
I loved this novel and will be reading more Philip Roth as a result.
- J. Neal