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American Berserk

George O’Brien

American Pastoral was first published by Houghton Mifflin in Boston in May 1997.

In the beginning was Newark. Everything that Philip Roth turned to such rich account in his great final spate of works inaugurated by American Pastoral is not only set in his native place but from the start derived its moral energy and edge from it. The city of Newark and especially the Weequahic neighbourhood, the local spaces that reflect the intricate geography of class and ethnicity, the mentalities of old Jews and their superannuated ways and of new Jews with their suburban affluence and unacknowledged assimilation anxieties, men’s moral crossroads and the unreasonable and irrational women who supply the materials for them – that repertoire of essential Roth concerns and interests is as central to Goodbye, Columbus (1959), his first book, whose eponymous novella made his name, as to the novels that crown his achievement forty years later. But instead of devoting himself to that repertoire’s potential, Roth wandered far and wide, following in Henry James’s footsteps in the long, slow, rather airless Letting Go (1962), doing a Mark Twain in Our Gang (1971), and in general trying a lot of modes and tones without ever seeming quite to satisfy the demands of harnessing his talent’s restless fluency to his smarts, his savvy, his wit and his ideas. He was out of Newark, but what did that mean?

That is what Alexander Portnoy would like to know too. For, considered unsensationally, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) can be read as the story of a character who can’t do enough to reject his formation, his family, his ethnicity, his history, and whose behaviour is driven by the belief that the effects of these influences can be assuaged, sublimated, or otherwise left aside through sexual self-assertion and the notion of individuality it supposedly connotes. At the conclusion of his client’s rant (at the end of the novel, that is), Portnoy’s analyst says, “Now vee may perhaps to begin”. But it might be argued that this so-called “punch line” does not really connect until American Pastoral, and that it is in this novel that the necessary beginning is made, one that brings Roth to bear more comprehensively than ever before on those questions concerning assimilation, social mobility, the vagaries of choice and the limits of agency that have their initial expression in Goodbye, Columbus. Now, at a point where most writers would be dining out on their reputations, he is ready to subject such questions to so thorough an examination as to suggest that beneath, or alongside, any account of a people and their place are parables of purpose and destiny, action and barriers, freedom and failure. And these larger issues may be grasped all the more affectingly because the rage and dread to which they give rise is framed and contained by the immediacies of the contexts, textures, rhythms and happenstances that form a recognisable and even pleasurable picture of the daily life of a man who has ostensibly got it made, American Pastoral’s protagonist, Seymour “Swede” Levov.

This enhanced sense of not just the commonplace interplay of self and world, and the much edgier connection between the best of times and the worst of times ‑ and both of those are present ‑ fuel American Pastoral’s high octane narrative and place that narrative in the context of a society that has lost sight of how best it might go on. And the levels of intensity and drama, heartbreak and ruin, that this enhancement generates – that sense of life being more than can be borne – make up one way that American Pastoral represents a fuller than hitherto flowering of Roth as a novelist. That blossoming is nourished to a considerable extent by a return to his home. The Swede’s origins, his parents, his growth and all the material and cultural props that give him standing are native to the author as well, not merely sources and signatures of meaning in the intellectual sense but much more incontrovertibly in the affective sense, born of attachment, experience, memory and a generous, if not uncritical, disposition. Of course, this set of connections belongs to Roth’s persona, Nathan Zuckerman – a central figure in his 1980s output, whose presence here is also an expression of return as exposure, challenge and testimonial. Roth’s own attitudes to his native place are bound to consist of more than merely fictional complications. Zuckerman frees, focuses, disciplines; and he also cannot pretend to omniscience, offering instead the more human alternative of immersion – immersion by questioning, typically – a simple device that expresses how unspeakable and alien “the tragedy of a man not set up for tragedy” is, and that also records how engrossing and provocative a tragedy this is, not least because “that is every man’s tragedy”.

As the title of American Pastoral suggests, though, the dynamics of a twofold world, even or especially that of the Swede’s personality and its “unconscious oneness with America”, provide the novel with its intellectual structure as well as with its human, affective appeal. The title’s two terms are both implicated and at odds with each other. One version of America’s notion of its exceptionalism is that it embodies the values of the pastoral, that it is uniquely a haven, allaying the homeland insecurities of, say, Eastern European Jewry, and doing so not by accident but with a degree of national awareness that reaches the assurance and inviolability of myth. Deliverance, shelter, the huddled masses and the green fields of the republic on which they may safely graze, are all to the fore in the story of the Swede and his immediate forebears. But as well as achieving, thriving and profiting being possible, so are their opposites, and these too make their presence felt as lavishly as American bounty, only with destructive consequences. It is as though the extreme promise of America generates an alternative extreme that betrays and negates that promise, a negation that is particularly intimate and corrosive when the promise seems to have been perfectly reproduced in the person of the Swede’s beloved daughter Merry. America is the pastoral and the anti-pastoral, the “paradise remembered” of this novel’s opening section and the “paradise lost” of its close. Between the two is “the fall”: what else could there possibly be? The fall and all the fallibility it connotes is inevitably the synthesis of the two opposing but related paradises, the American and the pastoral.

The human collapse resulting from the collision of two conflicting versions of human possibility takes place in early 1968, though it has been in train for some time beforehand. The setting is the paradisal (in the Newark-born Swede’s eyes) landscape of northern New Jersey, a bucolic Wasp heartland whose settlement dates from the American Revolution, with its old stone houses (one them the Swede’s), ancient lineages and rolling pastures, among them the hundred-acre cattle-breeding spread run by the Swede’s wife, a former Miss New Jersey, née Mary Dawn Dwyer, “a little Mick girl”. Here, on Arcady Hill Road, Old Rimrock, is where the Swede persuades himself he is at home, where “he felt like […] Johnny Appleseed”, the mythic American everyman sowing sweetness and plenty throughout the land. But it is here that the guileless Swede, devoted believer and affirmer of his own good fortune, finds it his devastating fate to witness a different kind of American Revolution, one that poisons the pastoral ideal, that blasts to smithereens the local Norman Rockwellesque general store and takes the life of philanthropic Doctor Conlon, Old Rimrock’s nearest thing to a good shepherd. The devastation, physical as well as psychological, is Merry Levov’s protest against the Vietnam War.

One way of thinking about Merry’s opposition to the war and her identification with the Weather Underground is, paradoxically, in terms of the pastoral. Merry is a typical impressionable teenager, to whom, given her background and upbringing, war is understandably unthinkable, just as – in view of her ex-urban home and the privileged life there – she is equally understandably wanting in political ideas or political understanding. Her chronic stammer articulates her uncertain grasp of the issues (as well as raising questions about what, given where she comes from, being able to speak for herself would in any case amount to: Lou Levov, the Swede’s crusty father, fears that a child of a marriage between his son and Dawn Dwyer “won’t be one thing or the other”). Still, for all her derivative ranting about LBJ, imperialism and so on, Merry does convey the rudimentary conviction that in Vietnam, America is failing to live up to its own sense of itself, the sense that her father embodies (the Swede is against the war, though it is not in his character to be ideologically self-conscious, politically engaged or in any committed sense critical: his America is not a place of thought). What Merry senses but is too immature and in too much of an oedipal rage to grasp is an idea of the war as antipastoral. And indeed, quite apart from Merry’s viewpoint, the Vietnam War did have strong ecological reverberations, featuring a use of firepower not just to defeat the enemy but to make life in its most ordinary – in this case, village – forms unliveable. Pastoral may or may not be part of the Vietnamese value system, but it is part of the American one and at least out of self-respect should be upheld. But, as so often in recent wars, the belligerent is fighting not only the enemy but itself. Militant opposition to the Vietnam War, whose surprisingly extensive bombing campaign is itemised in American Pastoral, shows this to be literally the case, although the literal case is only one aspect of the conflict that Roth depicts. But just to confine the novel to its treatment of “bringing the war home” (as the slogan was), shows that the conflict between the American and the pastoral is much on the author’s mind.

An alternative narrative, in which the “utopian” conception of “the longed-for American pastoral” does not yield to “the counterpastoral – […] the indigenous American berserk”, is what the Swede represents. He embodies not only an image of what that ideal amounts to, but also the culmination of Levov family history, a history that is not merely familial but also ethnic and economic, a testament to rising in the world (with the help of a government contract), of being renewed in confidence and rewarded in endeavour. In the family’s progress and enrichment, historical aspects as such are sublimated by material and personal well-being, the sense of purchase and possession, of arrival and attainment, that bounty of the now; all experience is subsumed into the living out of a typical American success story. In the parlance of the family business, the Swede is the skin that becomes the glove. The grandson of immigrants who laboured on the poisonous tannery floor, he is an inch-perfect fit with where he is, a model of “a large, smooth, optimistic American”. This fit is natural, deriving in the first, indelible instance not from anything the Swede bought or manufactured but from his own athletic body, that exceptional physical endowment through which he became the pride of Weequahic High and city-wide leagues and championships, the slugging first baseman, the tight end touchdown machine, the power forward par excellence, the Jew whose unusual blonde looks earned him a nickname that transcended and even mocked ethnic stereotyping, so that his only appropriate character seems to be American – which is the one he wanted. “And he loved America. He loved being an American.”

The control and expertise that he brought to the wartime (1940s) playing fields of Newark give the Swede a mythic quality, his baseball, football and basketball achievements brightening the fretful days of families whose sons were fighting in Italy and the Pacific. There is a sense in which the young Swede was lighting the way, converting with unself-conscious ease and grace the embattled body into an emblem of conquest, victory, triumph and glory. Back then, he was “an instrument of history”. He was the good shepherd of optimism, keeping alive the possibility of overcoming. (In a challenging, complicated and anachronistic illustration of how the Swede was perceived, we are told: “He is our Kennedy”, a statement whose ethnic resonances are very much to Roth’s point.) And the ideal of the unimpeachable, of the complete-in-itself, that the Swede’s sporting success represents is carried forward into how he runs Newark Maid, the family glove business – the name of which loses its innocent corniness when Merry, that other Newark maid, carries out the self-willed, misfit, unfitting action.

Obviously, the bomb conflicts utterly with all her father stands for: it destroys bodies, it is the wrong, negative history. The qualities of a good glove – those of the skin, and those of the cutter; the suppleness of the one and the eye of the other; the combination of pliability and dexterity that brings craft to the point of art (exemplified also by how Roth’s language tailors the rhetorical to the expository) – are a source of pride and delight to the Swede. And the way he relishes the whole process from animal to accessory reveals that in the production of a Levov glove there can be no such thing as cheating, no bad faith. It can only be done right (cutting corners when hitting or catching a ball is a foul); if not, you are fundamentally cheating yourself. And another quality of Newark Maid is that it seems to be an exclusively ethnic employer, its work force made up of Italians, Blacks and Puerto Ricans. The skills they acquire and practise have originated in the Old World, but their optimum realisation occurs in the New, where the transformation of raw skin into luxury item seems a metaphor for a collective deliverance for which the Swede may be regarded as a figurehead.

In the case of Blacks, this metaphor has to be handled with care, however, not only because of the obviously different patterns of American ethnic history but because, in the Swede’s view, the Newark riots of 1967, which saw the New Jersey National Guard park a tank outside his factory, is part of the “American berserk” to which Merry later gives expression. Even with the subsequent disaffection of the Black workforce and employers’ widespread flight from Newark following the riots, the Swede holds out for a time, the image of the berserk registering less with him than with his curmudgeonly father, American-born but always much less touched by the glow of optimism and affirmation that his son – “the philosopher-king of ordinary life” – emits. As with the war, the Swede does not seem to have any particular view or understanding of the riots, not even when he is exposed to their aftermath of urban blight. (He certainly would not see them in the kind of historical context implied by the late Amiri Baraka’s description of them as “the Newark rebellion”.) That exposure occurs in an excruciatingly personal context, when Merry returns to Newark five years after her first bomb and is living in a slum as a Jain. Her new faith requires her to respect every living thing, including microbes, an outlook as extreme and self-abnegating as her murderous career as a militant. (As depicted here, Jainism seems to be pastoral gone mad, a system of protection that dehumanises the protector – the pastor.) The Swede obviously focuses on his daughter, but the social and historical backdrop in which she seeks to make a life for herself ‑ or rather, to enact a non-life ‑ portray a more general ruin signified by the state of one part of the town the Swede loved so well. The blighted daughter has her counterpart in the blighted environment; both blasted futures.

The historical perspective is broadened once the Swede returns home to a dinner party after visiting Merry. All the talk is of Watergate and Deep Throat (the movie, not the whistle-blower), both taken by the Swede’s uncomprehending father as especially dark clouds in a generally menacing moral climate. None of the other guests, all members of Swede’s generation, share Lou Levov’s disquiet, the bewildered vehemence of which gives it an almost passé, belated air – one example of the barbed ironies threaded throughout the whole book. The devastating encounter with an emaciated, fundamentalist Merry understandably distracts the Swede from these exchanges on public life. And another distraction presents itself, also intimate, and literally pertinent to the fate of his house, a fate whose symbolic overtones add to the novel’s overtones of the tragic archetype, the good man who for no reason becomes the target of the irrational. This distraction is the discovery that Dawn is having an affair with a Wasp neighbor, Orcutt – William Orcutt III, not just any Wasp neighbour, but one whose family’s founding father was “Thomas. Protestant immigrant from Northern Ireland. Arrived 1774.” A dilettante with an alcoholic wife, Orcutt is designing a new house for Dawn to go with the facelift that was the centrepiece of her recovery from her breakdown following the Old Rimrock bomb. And this blow to the embattled but unbreakable Swede is compounded by historical factors. On this occasion too he has been turned into “history’s plaything”.

It is not just that, as a sign of her recovery, of her re-entry into daily life, Dawn – who is initially sceptical of Orcutt on class grounds – thinks herself entitled to her own revolution, although the inadequacy of Orcutt as a revolutionary pretext and the wilful foolhardiness of her eventual attachment to him may be seen as one more iteration of “the worst lesson that life can teach – that it makes no sense”, a lesson that bears a peculiarly sixties hallmark, in Roth’s view. But Dawn, the erstwhile body beautiful, does not possess the same kind of weight and bearing as her husband. Her moral slightness may be her distinctive way of being a member of American Pastoral’s gallery of damaging women – not only Merry but her dreadful comrade Rita Cohen; not only Dawn but the novel’s other adult women, Merry’s speech therapist Sheila Salzman, and Professor Marcia Umanoff, a facile nihilist. All are complicit in the making and remaking of Merry. Women as wayward sources of the unexpected are a fairly common occurrence throughout Roth’s fiction, beginning with Goodbye, Columbus’s Brenda Patimkin. And it seems odd that a writer as supple and resourceful as Roth would resort to so reductive a set of representations as the witch, the bitch, the bimbo, the ball-breaker and their ugly sisters. Maybe he is a misogynist, and if he is there’s no reason to let him off the hook for it, even if it’s not clear how such a blanket charge could really be made to stick.

In any case, contending with Dawn and Merry not as “women” but as elements germane to American Pastoral’s aims and structures suggests that their destructiveness has much more to do with artistic purpose than sexist animus. If the Swede is seen to be the object of an immense assault of all that Alexander Portnoy railed against as the “not you”, then the assault’s severity may indeed seem unwarranted – its scale another aspect of the sense of the extremes that darken the story. One way of registering the excruciating and unbearable that the Swede is called upon to endure is to give them origins that are as intimate as they are unexpected. The onslaught of the “not you” is all the more difficult to justify and comprehend when it emanates from one’s nearest and dearest, when it is a rebellion against the doting father and generous provider, the defender and cherisher, the lover and believer. It makes horrible and hopeless sense, and raises the imaginative stakes substantially by exposing the reader to such a cruel dialectic, that those who in one way are the Swede’s most intimate ties to life are in another way the source of his despair. The novel’s imaginative logic requires that the Swede’s possession of an unthinking male confidence grounded in athletic prowess must be thwarted and confounded by an entity that exists beyond the range and nature of his experiences, his way of looking at the world, and also that such an entity must be recognisable to the reader and sufficiently close to the Swede to produce tragedy’s necessary pity and awe. Dissent’s powerful presence amidst the bonds of kinship is one of the discoveries that lead the Swede to bewail the world as a playground of the irrational.

And in keeping with American Pastoral’s social and historical interests, Dawn’s desertion also has a revealing ethnic component. A plumber’s daughter, which from the outset places her on a different social level from that of the entrepreneurial Levovs, her growing familiarity with Orcutt and his standing is said to produce in her “Irish envy”. The implication is that in breaking up her marriage with the Swede she is allowing herself to be drawn into the Wasp orbit. This too is a form of betrayal, both of the Swede and of Dawn’s own Americanness (just as Merry has betrayed hers). The Wasp world is one of property masquerading as heritage, of manners without morals, of the soft-handed paper route to wealth and status – of everything that is counter to the ethnic ethos of the self-made. Orcutt’s is a life of ease, if only his current wife would stop drinking. His is a life that comes across as the historically sanctioned equivalent of a beauty queen’s dream of going first class. Dawn might well be expected to think more of herself than that, but cannot. She cannot afford awareness of either her own history or the manner in which the history of the day, through Merry, has affected her. That American Pastoral’s representative of America’s largest ethnic group should allow herself to be seduced by Wasp allure, by its essentially cosmetic and presumptuous shell (the very carapace that is impervious to various claims of what JFK called “a nation of immigrants”) is one more hint at the substantial shifts in allegiance that those confusing times set in motion. The Swede’s desire for “the utopia of a rational existence” increases in value as well as in impossibility in the light of all that militates against it, which includes Orcutt’s drunken wife almost taking one of old Lou Levov’s eyes out in the novel’s final scene.

The Swede survives Merry, Dawn, the riots, the whole shebang. He remarries, has a family, and to all appearances is back on top of his game. This outcome is revealed at the beginning, perhaps to avoid an impression of the Swede as an “American Job”. And the revelation comes quite incidentally at that all-American celebration of the crowd and its casual togetherness, of the players and their deceptively relaxed expertise. (Baseball has long been considered a prime instance of the American pastoral.) The Swede is at the game with his son, an American tradition, and an indication that some things haven’t changed. But reassuring as this encounter with the Swede might be, neither it nor anything else assist in understanding why he had the core of his being so severely shaken. How is it that bad comes of good, that the road to the Swede’s personal hell was paved with the best of intentions? Nathan Zuckerman does not presume to understand. This is one of the artful ways he earns his keep: the story he tells has much greater impact if its narrator ends up as perplexed about its meaning as the reader. And by not drawing a bottom line, by reaching merely an ending rather than a conclusion, he suggests that the point is not in explanation but in getting through. Perhaps if Roth were working in a strictly realist vein he would enable the reader to extract from the personal and historical chaos of the narrative material a reasonably secure sense of cause and effect, and leave it at that. But though Roth relies on the materials of realism, furnishing his works with the bric-a-brac of a given time and place, citing news stories of the day, quoting popular songs, sports news, radio serials and, in one of American Pastoral’s many bravura passages, the 1940s boys’ book, The Kid from Tompkinsville, this material is altered by the service it is asked to render to the novel’s broad design and intentions.

Such material, like Weequahic itself, retains its form and character but also is endowed with imaginative relevance. The collective effect of this endowment is ultimately that of a parable, an exemplary tale, a riddle of psyche and spirit, forms that are not necessarily insoluble but are of greater value when contemplated unsolved. In this method it is possible to detect something of those “Writers from the other Europe” – Milan Kundera, Danilo Kis, Bruno Schulz among others – a series of whose works appeared from Penguin in the 1970s under Roth’s editorship. Attachment to these writers, all questioners and psycho-cultural chroniclers, seems greatly to be preferred over the moralising of, say, a Tolstoy, a career bottom-liner, whose Death of Ivan Ilych is curtly dismissed early on in American Pastoral. Instead of learning a lesson, Roth’s reader is more likely to be sympathetic, attentive, a friendly witness. These quiet practices are, in their way, acts of resistance to the order of the day, whatever it is, that constantly threatens to be overwhelming.

It took Philip Roth what for most novelists would be a lifetime’s writing to arrive at the place designated by American Pastoral. But in this novel he combined elements of his earliest work with the invention of Nathan Zuckerman, combined the landscape of memory with that of historical imagination, blended the material reality of the factory floor with the psychic reality of the wounded spirit, and in the result created a launchpad for an extraordinarily prolific period, highlighted by I Married a Communist (1998), The Human Stain (2000), The Plot Against America (2004) and Nemesis (2010). In all these works, a sense of historical context supplies the point of departure, a sense that was hitherto only fitfully present in Roth’s works. That context’s exemplary site is Newark, first and last. For Roth, the longest way round has indeed been the shortest way home. But home he came. It has been worth it.

George O’Brien’s The Irish Novel 1960-2010 has been reissued in paperback by Cork University Press.



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