This post starts, strangely enough, in the local dump. That’s where I found a copy of the Philip Roth novel American Pastoral in pristine condition. Actually, it was a friend of mine and his wife who make periodic visits to “The Free Store” at the local sanitation station who rescued the copy. My friend read it and passed it on to me.
I had never read a Roth novel before. although I had seen Goodbye Columbus (back in the days when Richard Benjamin was a leading man) and had heard of Portnoy’s Complaint (who hadn’t?) and knew Philip Roth was a major literary figure but I had never cracked one of his novels.
Near as I can figure, American Pastoral is about a Jewish man named Seymour Levov (nicknamed “Swede” for his blond hair and blue eyes) who acquires all of the things society indicates are symbols of status and success (a star jock in high school, marriage to a onetime beauty queen, head of a successful business , which he inherited) and still manages to alienate his wife and daughter. I interpreted the novel as a nasty indictment of the so-called American Dream and/or a grim, almost existential fable about life itself (no matter how carefully we may plan, hope and/or dream about our personal future, stuff happens.)
Frankly I didn’t quite know what the author wanted me to take away from the novel – and I may not have been the only one. Atlantic Magazine calls it ” a relentlessly mental book, full of inconclusive rumination on material often left strangely undramatized. And that, along with the book’s mystifyingly haphazard structure, prevents it from becoming a “genuine imaginative event.” On the other hand, the English newspaper,The Guardian labels it a “masterpiece”. Since the novel won a Pulitzer Prize and was named one of “the 100 Greatest Novels of the 20th Century” by TIME I may be missing something (if you value what society deems to be symbols of status and success.)
By the way, Mr. Roth based the character of Swede on a real person according to reviewer Ted Gioia (among other folks) writing in something called the newcanon.com. The object of the novelist’s admiration was a star high school athlete, Seymour “Swede” Masin, and although the tragedies which befall the fictional Levov later in life didn’t happen to his real-world counterpart, Mr. Masin (who passed away in 2005) confessed, according to Mr. Gioia, that if those events had befallen him, “It’s amazing, but almost everything in the book I would have done if I’d been in those situations.”
There is apparently a screen adaptation of the novel as well with Ewan McGregor (miscast as “Swede”, in my opinion), Jennifer Connelly as his wife and Dakota Fanning (giving one of her few misguided performances) as his daughter. The film rights were actually acquired in 2003 but after a number of directorial and cast changes they finally started filming in 2015. (It takes tenacity to work your way through Mr. Roth’s dense prose.) The producers compounded their error by asking the unfortunate Mr. McGregor to make his feature film directing bow after Phillip Noyce pulled out. (There is probably a reason Mr. McGregor has not helmed a movie since). A box office and critical disaster, American Pastoral (the film) helped to prove why Mr. Roth’s novels are so devilishly hard to successfully adapt for the screen.
Nathan Zuckerman, widely regarded as Mr. Roth’s alter ego, makes a brief appearance here as well but, depending on which reviews you read, he is there in spirit for the majority of the novel.
Currently, I am reading Zuckerman Unbound, one of the only Roth novels available in my local library. It was copyrighted in 1981 and shows a lighter side of the novelist. (But then we were all a little more optimistic in 1981. At least, I was.) In the book, Mr. Zuckerman has attained wealth and success as the author of an erotically charged best-seller called Carnovsky and is uncomfortable with his celebrity and all it brings with it. The novel could be interpreted as the fame Mr. Roth unwittingly earned as the author of the controversial novel Portnoy’s Complaint.