American Pastoral
Philip Roth
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Get Philip Roth's *American Pastoral* delivered to your door! American Pastoral
Philip Roth
432 pages
September 2005
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Philip Roth won the Pulitzer prize for this riveting, quietly horrifying novel that shatters the idyllic illusion of America that its inhabitants once harbored. A commentary on the human incapacity to truly see beneath the surfaces of apparent well-being in other people, American Pastoral also provides a fascinating glimpse into the novelist's process of "what-if." Simply told and deeply affecting, this is a book that deserves commemoration.

Curled Up With a Good BookNovelist Skip Zuckerman has a chance meeting with a boyhood hero of his at a baseball game. That hero is Swede Levov, an older man now who in his improbably blond-haired, blue-eyed youth was a legend in his own time within his Jewish neighborhood, an extraordinary athlete who was the embodiment of "American" to his contemporaries, to their parents, to their little brothers and sisters. The Swede's younger brother was Skip's best friend, and that friendship gave the eventual writer ample opportunity to observe and worship his idol. Swede Levov has aged gracefully, looking every bit the successful and contented businessman that no one from their neighborhood ever doubted he could become. He seems, to Skip now, impossibly serene, as though the Swede is unafflicted by any depth, that he is incapable of having anything other than the perfect life.

A short time later, Skip receives a letter from Seymour "Swede" Levov, asking that they meet to discuss a private memoir of the Swede's and his brother Jerry's father, a glovemaker whose company the Swede eventually inherited and successfully carried on. Unable all these years later to resist the quiet, legendary Swede, Skip meets with him. But at the lunch, the Swede makes no mention of his father or of a memoir, simply talks of his sons and of memories of Newark before and during World War II. Skip's impression, is not exactly of shallowness, but of layer after layer of surface, of glowing blandness and self-contentedness. Skip leaves the meeting disappointed and a little bewildered about his own continuing fascination with the great Swede Levov:

    Why the appetite to know this guy? Ravenous because once upon a time he said to you and to you alone, "Basketball was never like this, Skip"? Why clutch at him? What's the matter with you? There's nothing here but what you're looking at. He's all about being looked at. He always was. He is not faking all this virginity. You're craving depths that don't exist. This guy is the embodiment of nothing.
     I was wrong. Never more mistaken about anyone in my life.

A couple of months later, Skip attends his fory-fifth high school reunion. Having various conversations with old male classmates about the fear of prostate cancer (and lying about the debilitating effects prostate surgery has had on himself), watching and wondering at the fact that he and these people who were once young and strong have grown as old as they are, Skip runs into the Swede's brother Jerry -- once his intense, combative Ping Pong-playing best friend, now a several-times-divorced and very successful surgeon. Skip mentions having had lunch with the Swede, and Jerry stuns him by saying he's just come from his funeral. The Swede knew he was dying when he met with Skip, and as the two reminisce, Skip comes to realize that there was far more to the Swede beneath that seemingly unscratchable surface.

Obsessed by a few surprising facts of the Swede's life that Jerry gives him, Skip begins a novel about the Swede. It is a story, a book that Skip is making up as he goes along, but a story that is nonetheless true and that resonates painfully with anyone who has ever felt alone, or in control, or who has thought that they knew all they could about someone of whom they've carried memories all their lives. As the secrets of the Swede's life unfold, so does the smooth gloss of satisfaction, contentment, blandness slough away. The pain that can lie beneath the public face of a person we admire and respect is laid bare, as is the fact that one torment can lead to more and further agony with an inevitability that is appalling upon the realization. American Pastoral is painful, yet a thing of great beauty, a gorgeous elegy for an innocent America that has long ago passed away.

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