For the past month I’ve been working in New Jersey. My morning commute is an hour long and identical to the Soprano’s intro. Under the Hudson and straight through the Meadowlands and Newark, this vast stretch of brown industry, acres of cranes and stacked containers and overpasses.
So it felt especially appropriate reading Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, his Pulitzer prize winning novel about the life of Seymore Levov, a businessman who lives and experiences tragedy right here in Newark New Jersey.
I haven’t read a lot of Roth, but what I have was always excellent. He has this ability to take the mundane and the trivial, the minutiae of daily life and turn it into extended, flowing prose. Even more, in American Pastoral, those very same tragedies act as allegory for the latter half of 20th century American history.
Seymore Levov (the Swede) grows up an all American boy in the 1940s. He’s handsome, excels at sports, and is a hit with the cheerleaders. He signs up to be a Marine in the war, but misses deployment by a few months, and returns home to his father’s growing glove factory in Newark, and to marry his sweetheart, the newly crowned Miss New Jersey.
The glove business excels and the Swede moves out to rural New Jersey, the town of Old Rimrock, to live in a big old stone house out in the woods and stride along the quiet streets “like Johnny Appleseed”. He has a young daughter, and aside from her slight stuttering problem, life is wonderful.
But young Merry comes of age in the tumultuous 60s, and her obsession becomes the Vietnam War. The race riots nearly burn the Swede’s Newark factory to the ground, and Merry falls in with a dangerous crowed – the Weather Underground. From there, his pastoral paradise becomes a veritable hell.
Roth tells his tale in an interesting format. He’s not concerned with plot. The summary above is pretty much conveyed within the first 50 pages. The bulk of the book looks at the events from different times in the Swede’s life, as he thinks about his own actions and inabilities, the crux of fate verses free will. And as his family self destructs externally, we see the psyche of a man who was so strong and confident in beautiful youth become a cowering and indecisive shell.
If we look at Swede as a model for America, perhaps the allegory is a too clean cut. The narrative of that 30 year stretch (the maturation of the baby boomers) has been retold countless times. The idyllic to the psychotic in one short generation. But the skill of Roth’s pen is what’s impressive. He can move from a single thought – “What about the time I joked about Merry’s stuttering? Did that turn her bad?” – and move through a whole history of the family, the character quirks and oddball anecdotes. That’s what it takes to map a tragic life, all the little things.
Still, I can empathize. I’ve driven the turnpike through those wastelands, all the way out to where there are more green trees than road signs, and there are huge stone houses sitting up on wooded hills. Even there you can’t hide the fact you’re in soul-sucking New Jersey…