6. American Pastoral

By Philip Roth. 1997. 

As Donald Trump became president today, my Facebook friends cried “The fight starts now” and “We’re doomed” and “Don’t forget to set the clock back 300 years.” A smart journalist friend said she severed three once-cherished relationships over Trump. The women in my small town march against Trump tomorrow, and I live in Mexico.

In this moment of mass angst and sweeping change, remember the Swede.

Seymour “the Swede” Levov, center of the celebrated novel American Pastoral, personifies America’s greatest era. The Swede was a legendary athlete, trained marines for World War II, and ran factories in Newark. He fondly remembers boyhood, “the American way his father said to the guy at the pump, ‘Fill ‘er up, Mac. Check the front end, will ya, Chief?'” The Swede loves America.

His beloved daughter Merry hates America, so deeply that she bombs a post office, killing an innocent man. Then she disappears.

The explosion devastates everything. He cannot understand it, and this lack of understanding is, to me, why American Pastoral matters. Consider the profound shift between World War II and Vietnam, the Greatest Generation aging in the ’60s and watching riots and domestic terrorism committed by Americans their children’s age.

Roth seeks essential American truth, and finds this: There is no answer. His backdrop – macro-level, zoomed way out – is our conflicted country, seething. Zoomed in: a father and his daughter, a self-consciously good man whose baby girl grew into a killer. Why can’t a good life hold? All around him, in his city (macro) and his marriage (micro), other conflicts rage. If he cannot reconcile a conflict, if there is no winner or loser, what can the Swede do? Change?

This is dense literature. American Pastoral forgoes traditional thrills. It’s not a procedural. It enters the mind of a man who wants desperately to understand. Do everything right, build a life of love and hard work, and societal change might fuck everything up. We are leaves on a windy plain.

Half of America cannot understand the other half. Accept it, because it will happen again, like it always does, with terrible consequences, like there always are.

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