PHILIP Roth begins his 1988 memoir by describing the source of his literary imagination.
In the past, as you know, the facts have always been notebook jottings, my way of springing into fiction. For me, as for most novelists, every genuine imaginative event begins down there, with the facts, with the specific, and not with the philosophical, the ideological, or the abstract.
This is commonplace wisdom among fiction writers, as the author says in the passage. Yet Roth largely ignores it in his new novel, American Pastoral, an allegory seemingly conceived in an abstracted realm of big notions and fixed ideas. American Pastoral is a relentlessly mental book, full of inconclusive rumination on material often left strangely undramatized. And that, along with the book's mystifyingly haphazard structure, prevents it from becoming a "genuine imaginative event."
The novel concerns a Jew who does not look or behave like a Jew, a man who comes to be known as "the Swede" in his Newark, New Jersey, high school in the 1940s because of his magically "anomalous face": "Of the few fair-complexioned Jewish students in our preponderantly Jewish public high school, none possessed anything remotely like the steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask of this blue-eyed blond born into our tribe as Seymour Irving Levov." And the magic goes beyond mere looks: the Swede is gifted with an extraordinary athlete's body and talent. His achievements on the playing field seem to be the sole element of legend and self-transcendence in the insular world around him.
Through the Swede, the neighborhood entered into a fantasy about itself and about the world, the fantasy of sports fans everywhere: almost like Gentiles (as they imagined Gentiles), our families could forget the way things actually work and make an athletic performance the repository of all their hopes.
The book is narrated by the well-known Nathan Zuckerman, but Zuckerman in the present day -- now alone, separated from the "aristocrat" with whom he'd been living overseas, impotent and incontinent (though presumably cancer-free) from prostate surgery. In the 1940s Zuckerman was a classmate of the Swede's younger brother and an idolizer of the Swede, that great Other among the Newark Jews: "He'd invoked in me, when I was a boy -- as he did in hundreds of other boys -- the strongest fantasy I had of being someone else." This very fiction is the long-delayed fulfillment of that fantasy, because Zuckerman, as he freely admits, concocts most of it, merging with the beautiful, un-Jewish, unknowable Swede by inventing the story of his life. The novel's most memorable episode occurs early, and is also one of the most directly dramatized: Zuckerman's forty-fifth high school reunion, where he meets his old friend Jerry Levov, the Swede's younger brother. Jerry has just attended the Swede's funeral; the Swede died of the same disease that Zuckerman has lately survived. Jerry reveals a traumatic, decades-old event in the Swede's personal life, but not much else: "Anything more I wanted to know, I'd have to make up," Zuckerman says, announcing his intention to "dream" the Swede's surprisingly unhappy life. He allows his first-person voice to be replaced by the story he's inventing, and that moment has something of the fictive magic of Nabokov, or of the Eastern European writers whom Roth admires and whom he has published in his Writers From the Other Europe series of books for Penguin.
Zuckerman was provoked to make a story by learning of a specific historical event, but his dream of the Swede's life sweeps us into a novel of ideas. From here on what "happens" is largely said to happen, the events of the plot now seen through a veil of issues and themes. At any rate, what happens is that the Swede, a charismatic, kind-hearted, nearly selfless Jew who could be taken for Anglo-Saxon, rejects a career in sports to go into his father's leather-glove business. He then defies his father by marrying a shiksa (an Irish Catholic and a former Miss New Jersey), and further breaks with his origins by leaving his ancestral immigrant metropolis for an old fieldstone house in rural New Jersey -- site of Revolutionary War encampments, a place of pristine American history. He and his wife have a daughter, Meredith, known as "Merry," who seems not to have inherited the great beauty of either parent, though Merry's face is left oddly unportrayed among other palpable faces in the book. Her flaw, however, is not unportrayed: she suffers from a severe stutter. And though her childhood is otherwise idyllic, around the age of fifteen she is suddenly transformed -- "almost overnight" becoming fat, slovenly, contemptuous of her family, and committed to extreme leftist politics. By sixteen, in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, she has become so radicalized as to bomb the general store in her rural village of Old Rimrock (killing a local physician), and goes into hiding, vanishing from her parents' lives.
That brings us almost a third of the way through the novel. The Swede's psychological anguish is described at length, but he takes almost no action, except to meet several times with an emissary of Merry's. The next five years pass in summary, and the remainder of the present-day action -- occupying, along with much flashback, more than half the book's bulk -- takes place in a single afternoon and evening. During this day the Swede's almost-repaired life is brought down with one sweep of the author's hand: he finds Merry, who is now a member of the ascetic Indian sect known as the Jains; learns that it was Merry's Morristown speech therapist who concealed her for the first few days after the bombing; and discovers that his wife is having an affair with her prototypical WASP architect. We, in turn, learn something that has been concealed from us until now: five years before, just after the speech therapist defied federal law by harboring Merry in her home, the Swede himself had an affair with her -- an event for which there is no basis in the Swede's character as we've seen it portrayed.