Monday, April 9, 2012

American Pastoral - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reads a Pulltzer Prize Winning Classic

Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel American Pastoral is a great and very emotionally difficult read.  Roth uses his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, to get the story going (and actually to tell the ending at the beginning – the frustrating, explosive ending of the book that left so little resolved became manageable for me only when I realized that the resolution of the story had already been offered – in the first twenty five pages or so when I was still trying to get oriented), but he abandons Zuckerman (thankfully – the man is an overly introspective and bitter guy) to take on the task of telling, in the first person, the story of Seymour “Swede” Levov – rhymes with love - a blond haired, blue eyed jewish grandson of immigrants who is gifted athletically, revered by his peers; and who chooses to walk away from professional baseball to take over the family’s glove making factory in Newark.  He does not take over the family’s ethnic identity, however.  He moves out to Old Rimrock, New Jersey – a bastion of WASPs in a pastoral setting, where he lives in a two hundred year old home, marries Miss New Jersey 1949, and settles into a bucolic existence.

In his seventies, Swede asks to meet with Zuckerman, the writer, to have the writer help him tell his father’s story – a story of disappointment.  But the meeting never gets to the heart of the matter.  Swede is too stoic, too surfacy, and has had too much of the perfect life for the writer to find a way in.  He can’t connect with the deeper parts of Swede, and is bored as he tries to stay on the surface with him.  Zuckerman then goes to a high school reunion, where we meets up with his old buddy, Swede’s younger, very competitive brother, gets from him the skeleton of the story of their father’s disappointment, and learns that Swede has died of the prostate cancer he thought he had beaten.  Zuckerman then becomes Swede, telling the story of his life in the first person, and revealing layer after layer of emotional complexity beneath the apparently calm exterior of this fantastically gifted and stoical man.  As he does this, he reveals the beating that Swede has taken- the work to become the factory manager and owner, to steer the factory through the race riots, and the devastation of having his family implode (I won’t go into detail here to avoid spoiling too much for those who have not yet read it).

This book works on many, many levels and, while the psychological nitty gritty is certainly one of them, I would like to set my sights on a different vista.  I think this book is a description of America itself; the America of the last half of the twentieth century, with all of its earlier history coming to bear on a time of transition and tumult.  It is the story of a country of boundless opportunity, without great self reflection, that is, as Swede is depicted on one of his weekly five mile walks back from the country store, in love with life – imagining itself as Swede does to be Johnny Appleseed, sowing a future pregnant with bounty.  This great, beautiful country, filled with immigrants who transcend their heritage to become, like Swede, the iconic golden child, but also filled with those who fail: the African Americans, children of slaves, toiling in factories and living in squalid cities, and the WASPs who, like the country gentlemen down the road, have lost their sense of purpose along with their moral sensibilities.  And America, a ship of state, containing all and sundry, not mixed but held together, sailing blissfully forward, founders on the socio-cultural upheaval of the sixties and seventies: the race riots, the war and the objections to it; Deep Throat the movie, and deep throat the source that together reveal the seamier, perverse, pornographic underside of this great horizonless place and the cinematic vision - the Hollywood version that is the result of heavy censorship - can no longer be maintained.

Now, when I write in that experience distant way this book must seem like it must be as stilted, preachy, and sweeping as my paragraph has been.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Yes, there are great truths revealed.  Yes, the culture is described, but this occurs in the particulars; particulars that are fascinating, and each sentence impelled me to read the next.  I was drawn, in horror and fascination, to know more about the ways that Swede, the person that he was, that he wanted to be, was to be thwarted by all that piled up around him; drawn in by a perfect storm that kept brewing and brewing, a storm that leads to the final scene in the book when a group of characters come into Swede’s home together intent, without knowing it, on destroying him. 

And yet, we know from the beginning, he survives.  He doesn’t just survive, he goes on to thrive.  He lives a life of dignity despite the deluge.  Just as America “recovered” from Watergate – somewhat more cynical, somewhat more wary, but still, underneath it all, still hopelessly optimistic and ready to move forward – to take on new challenges as if the old wounds had healed, when in fact they are still carried within us, alive, cutting at us, but not derailing us.  But also, at least in the person of Swede, the wounds seem unavailable, hidden beneath a placid surface with a happy ending, and therefore there seems to be nothing much to talk about; nothing much to tell.  Swede starts out as the kind of person that we might despise – and do despise in the beginning  – the kind of person we envy, but also pity – the person who does not know himself, until Zuckerman helps us know him – until we read, enthralled, about all that lies within him.

About a year and half ago, my reluctant wife and I went to the Mohammed Ali museum in Louisville.  It is a remarkable museum in many ways, not least of which is that, unlike some museums devoted to a person – notably many of our presidential museums – it does not completely sugar coat the story.  It tells of the characteristics of the man, both good and bad, that make him who he is.  And he was The Greatest not because he had no flaws, but because he used himself as an instrument fully – in ways that worked well and some that didn’t.  The Swede, like Ali, like America itself, is a great and wonderful character not because he is good at everything – that is the surface.  He becomes a great and wonderful character as we appreciate the complexity, the difficulty, the joys, but also the turmoil that is involved in becoming fully instrumental.  And he is remarkably American in that he ends up moving on, continuing to live, even joyfully, despite all that has happened, and without much introspection or awareness of all the turmoil, all the complexity, all the contradictions, that lie within him. 

He wants to tell Zuckerman, but ultimately can't.  He keeps the secret.  But Zuckerman comes to know him anyway.  He inhabits him and opens him up.  He knows what must lie beneath the surface, even if the particulars are wrong.  He knows how he has been torn, even if Swede can't acknowledge it himself.  We admire those around us who have come through, like our country, relatively unscathed, even if we know, for both the country and the individuals that there have been great and terrible costs.  And we truly admire them when we look at those costs, share them and their pain, and balance them against the good that has been done and, in a more balanced way, know what it is that we are seeing.

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