Sunday, July 20, 2014

Swede Levov. Rhymes with "the Love."

Let's remember the energy. Americans were governing not only themselves but some two hundred million people in Italy, Austria, Germany, and Japan. The war-crimes trials were cleansing the earth of its devils once and for all. Atomic power was ours alone. Rationing was ending, price controls were being lifted; in an explosion of self-assertion, auto workers, coal workers, transit workers, maritime workers, steel workers - laborers by the millions demanded more and went on strike for it. And playing Sunday morning softball on the Chancellor Avenue field and pickup basketball on the asphalt courts behind the school were all the boys who had come back alive, neighbors, cousins, older brothers, their pockets full of separation pay, the GI Bill inviting them to break out in ways they could not have imagined possible before the war. Our class started high school six months after the unconditional surrender of the Japanese, during the greatest moment of collective inebriation in American history. And the upsurge of energy was contagious. Around us nothing was lifeless. Sacrifice and constraint were over. The Depression had disappeared. The lid was off. Americans were to start over again, en masse, everyone in it together.

Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral is my first Philip Roth, and what a doozy. I am left feeling its brutal themes long after having turned its last page, in part because of the way the narrative unfolds - with some of the ending up front - and in part because I am trying to absorb what the author has to say. American Pastoral is about the destruction of a man, about the collateral damage done to Seymour "Swede" Levov in the battle between the Greatest Generation and their Baby Boomer offspring during the turbulent 1960s. And that is a vein mined deep by Roth, who, from the viewpoint of the so-called Silent Generation, takes in not just the Greatest and the Boomers but the Depression-era adults and comes squarely down in favor of the older, squarely incriminates and condemns the Boomers and their enablers for selfishness and nihilism.

The plot is simple: an American Jewish guy from New Jersey grows up excelling at life and fathers a daughter that turns on him in horrific ways. But for Roth the plot runs into the internal mechanisms of not just the Swede, whose emotions run deeper than expected, whose thoughts and intentions are so admirable, but the grandfather, up from his bootstraps, Swede's wife, a reluctant beauty pageant queen, and into post-war American New Jersey itself. And of course the narrator, who is obviously fascinated with his characters but not afraid to reveal his alliances, his story is told, and its twofold in its themes: the post-modern condition of not being sure what you really know about anyone, the barriers to knowing, and the narrative of American history from immigrant to post-immigrant to post-post immigrant. Great stuff. A little self referential and redundant - maybe because the Swede in his anguishes recrosses so much of the same ground. What next for me and Roth?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Eye on Updike

I've avoided reading Updike for years. My only impression of him was "A&P" in high school. But I kept coming across him in my reading as one of the great male American novelists, a Christian writer, a master with language, and, after asking advice, took the plunge. Rabbit, Run. Delightful! Couples - amazing.

As a reader and writer, I love stylists. I love prose. And Updike has that in spades. That's one third of the reason we read Updike, from what I can tell, the other two-thirds being his subject matter and the depths of wisdom, the literary artistry, his work contains. But that prose. Sometimes I can identify in the writers whose work I fall in love with at least one paragraph or turn of phrase that I can point to and say, "That's it, that's where he got me, right there." I think this might be the Updike, from Couples:

The couple Foxy's parents had been had vanished. The narrow shuttered frame house on Rosedale Street. The unused front porch. The tan shades always drawn against the heat. The electric fan in the kitchen swinging its slow head back and forth like an imbecile scolding in monotone. The staticky Philco conveying Lowell Thomas. The V-mail spurting through the thrilled slot. The once-a-week Negro woman, called Gracelyn, whose apron pockets smelled of orange peels and Tootsie Rolls. Veronica their jittery spayed terrier who was succeeded by Merle, a slavering black tongued Chow. The parched flowerless shrubbery where Elizabeth would grub for bottlecaps and "clues," the long newspaper-colored ice-cream evenings, the red-checked oilcloth on the kitchen table worn bare at two settings, the way her mother would sit nights at this table, after the news, before putting her daughter to bed, smoking a Chesterfield and smoothing with a jerky, automatic motion the skin beneath her staring eyes: these images vanished everywhere but in Foxy's heart. She went to church to salvage something. Episcopalianism - its rolling baritone hymns to the sea, its pews sparkling with the officers' shoulder-braid - had belonged to the gallant club of Daddy's friends, headed by caped Mr. Roosevelt, that fought and won the war.

I like to joke with my wife and the librarians - anyone that will listen, really - that I read "dirty books," and Couples is as dirty a book as any I have ever read, but with great purpose; probably the best thing written about it is this 1968 review by Wilfrid Sheed. And now I have to find and read Wilfrid Sheed. That's how it works.