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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Generational Turmoil in 'Pastoral'

Back in 1960, Philip Roth gave a speech in which he argued that American life was becoming so surreal and stupefying, that it had ceased to be a manageable subject for novelists. He maintained that real life, the life behind newspaper headlines, was outdoing the imagination of novelists, and that, therefore, they were abandoning the effort to grapple with "the grander social and political phenomena of our times" and were turning instead "to the construction of wholly imaginary worlds, and to a celebration of the self."

These remarks -- made even before John F. Kennedy's assassination and the social upheavals of the '60s magnified the surreal quotient of American life -- help illuminate what Tom Wolfe identified in the late '80s as a retreat from realism. They also help explain the direction that Roth's own fiction has taken over the last 3 1/2 decades, his long obsession with alter egos and mirror games and the transactions between life and art.

In his latest novel, American Pastoral, however, Roth does away with -- or nearly does away with -- these narcissistic pyrotechnics and tackles the very subjects he once spurned as unmanageable: namely, what happened to America in the decades between World War II and Vietnam, between the complacencies of the '50s and the confusions of the '60s, '70s and '80s. With the story of Seymour (Swede) Levov, Roth has chronicled the rise and fall of one man's fortunes and in doing so created a resonant parable of American innocence and disillusion.

The resulting book is one of Roth's most powerful novels ever, a big, rough-hewn work built on a grand design, a book that is as moving, generous and ambitious as his last novel, "Sabbath's Theater," was sour, solipsistic and narrow.

As Roth has observed himself, his books tend to "zigzag" between the two poles of his imagination: between the willfully decorous ("Letting Go," "The Ghost Writer") and the willfully outrageous ("Portnoy's Complaint," "Our Gang"). It is eminently clear that "American Pastoral" belongs to the first category, and that its polite, dutiful hero, Seymour Levov, is the opposite number of such flamboyant egoists as Mickey Sabbath.

At the same time, Roth has taken these two contradictory impulses in himself, and used them to limn two contradictory impulses in American history: the first, embodied by Seymour Levov, representing that optimistic strain of Emersonian self-reliance, predicated upon a belief in hard work and progress; the second, embodied by the Swede's fanatical daughter, Merry, representing the darker side of American individualism, what Roth calls "the fury, the violence, and the desperation" of "the indigenous American berserk."

Whereas the collision of the prudent and the transgressive, the normal and the Dionysian, has been the source of uproarious comedy in earlier Roth novels, that same collision in "Pastoral" generates a familial -- and generational -- showdown with tragic consequences; one that also becomes a kind of metaphor for America's tumultuous lurch into the second half of the 20th century.

We do not get the details of Seymour's story directly from Roth, but through the prism of his favorite hero and mouthpiece, Nathan Zuckerman, the infamous star of the "Zuckerman" trilogy, who now lives in seclusion in the New England countryside, his body and ravaged by surgery and cancer.

Nathan, it seems, idolized Seymour in high school. The Swede's success on the athletic field, his goyish good looks, his sweetness of spirit, all combined to make him an all-American hero, a golden boy seemingly blessed with endless good fortune. After high school, he became a marine, married Miss New Jersey of 1949, took over his father's glove business and bought a big old house in the New Jersey countryside.

It turns out, that Seymour is now a broken man, all his hopes shattered by his daughter, Merry, who in 1968 at the height of anti-Vietnam war protests set off a bomb that killed a man. In Nathan's telling (or reimagining) of Seymour's story, Merry emerges as both a self-righteous fury, oddly reminiscent of the implacable Lucy Nelson in "When She Was Good," and an exaggerated version of Portnoy and Sabbath, the rebellious child programmed to reject all that her parents' generation holds dear.

As depicted by Roth (er, Nathan), Seymour comes across as a regular guy -- a kind, forbearing man who unexpectedly finds himself chewed up and spit out by the noisy machinery of history. Such a character might ordinarily seem a little bland, even boring, but Roth describes him with such authority and insight that he's able to make the Swede's decency as palpable -- and, yes, compelling -- as the manic craziness of his earlier creations. Seymour, we realize, is the quintessential innocent, a man whose life has broken into a Before and After, a man who finds himself trapped between the moral certainties of his father and the angry denunciations of his daughter.

Certainly the vexing relationship between fathers and children, and the mind-boggling disparity between one's expectations of the world and its grim reality are perennial issues for Roth's heroes, but in "Pastoral," they are turned from purely personal dilemmas into broader social ones. We are made to contemplate the demise of the immigrant dream cherished by men like Seymour's father, the souring of the generational struggle during the 60's, and the connections between assimilation and rootlessness and anomie.

Although Roth sometimes works too hard to turn Seymour into a symbol (he is shown imitating Johnny Appleseed and is compared to John F. Kennedy), although his efforts to encompass three generations of history are occasionally strained, "Pastoral" is far more fluent, far more emotionally tactile than the novel's broader outline suggests. Writing less in anger than in sorrow, Roth uses his sharp reporter's eye not to satirize his characters, but to flesh them out from within.

Even Merry -- who at one point is described as "chaos itself" -- turns out to be a complex creature, enigmatic and alarming, but also oddly recognizable: a young woman captive to her emotions, impulsive, rebellious and angry, a girl who in a space of months has exchanged 4-H meetings for violent political demonstrations.

Like her father, the reader struggles to connect the dots in her life, struggles to explain how this cherished daughter of privileged parents could end up a fugitive from justice. But then, that is Roth's point: that events are not rational, that people are not knowable, that life is not coherent.

In the end, the saga of the Levov family is one of those stories out of the headlines that make the reader's head reel, one of those stories Roth once characterized as a threat to the novelist's powers of invention. It is his achievement in these pages that he has not only tackled and imaginatively harnessed such a daunting subject but has also used it to create a fiercely affecting work of art.

"American Pastoral" By Philip Roth, 423 pages, Houghton Mifflin Co. $26.