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AMERICAN PASTORAL by Philip Roth Kirkus Star

AMERICAN PASTORAL

By Philip Roth

Pub Date: May 12th, 1997
ISBN: 0-395-86021-0
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Roth's elegiac and affecting new novel, his 18th, displays a striking reversal of form--and content--from his most recent critical success, the Portnoyan Sabbath's Theater (1995). Its narrator, however, is a familiar Rothian figure: writer Nathan Zuckerman (of The Ghost Writer, et al.)--and in case you're wondering whether he still seems to be his author's alter ego, Nathan is now in his early 60s, recovering from both cancer surgery and a longtime affair with an English actress. Essentially retired, Nathan is approached by a high-school classmate's older brother--and the well-remembered hero of his youth: Seymour "Swede" Levov, once a blue-eyed athletic and moral paragon who strode through life with ridiculous ease, now nearing 70 and crushed by outrageous misfortunes. Swede asks his help writing a tribute to his late father, and soon thereafter dies himself. Piqued by the enigma of a seemingly perfect life (superb health, a successful family business, marriage to a former beauty queen) inexplicably gone wrong, Zuckerman "dream[s] a realistic chronicle" that reconstructs Swede's life--compounded of information gleaned from others who knew him, and centering in the 1960s when Swede's life began to unravel. His only daughter Meredith ("Merry") had rebelled against her parents' and her culture's complacency, protested against the war in Vietnam, claimed responsibility for a terrorist bombing in which innocent people were killed, and gone "underground" as a fugitive. Most of the scenes Zuckerman/Roth imagines, therefore, are intensely emotional conversations in which the conflicting claims of social solidarity and individual integrity are debated with pained immediacy. Here, and in more conventionally expository authorial passages, meditativeness and discursiveness predominate over drama. Nevertheless, passion seethes through the novel's pages. Some of the best pure writing Roth has done. And Swede Levov's anguished cry "What the hell is wrong with doing things right?" may be remembered as one of the classic utterances in American fiction.