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?

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