Monday, November 5, 2007

Riding on BART with The Swede

Another great advantage for me of using public transport, especially the commuter train system BART here in the S.F. Bay Area, is the time I get to read. I usually commute at off hours, so there's almost always a seat on the train, and I bring a book. I just finished American Pastoral by Philip Roth, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. I decided to read more Roth after enjoying The Plot Against America so much, and I also decided to pick up a copy of The Great American Novel, a book I first read when I was in high school.

American Pastoral is one of the Zuckerman novels, where Roth's alter ego Zuckerman, a successful novelist who grew up in Newark, is a character. (In Plot Against America, Roth drops this device and makes himself and his family characters in the story of the election of Charles Lindbergh as president.) The majority of the beginning of the book is Zuckerman at his 45th high school reunion in 1995, including reconnecting with Jerry Levov, a fellow with whom Zuckerman had one of those difficult relationships that sometimes pass for friendship in high school. Jerry is the younger brother of Swede Levov, a legendary high school athlete who graduated five years before Jerry and Zuckerman in 1945. The Swede, almost never called by his given name Seymour in the book, is a big, lean, blue-eyed blond, the American ideal, a three letterman in basketball, baseball and football. He joins the Marines after high school, marries Miss New Jersey of 1949, a Catholic girl named Mary Dawn Dwyer, and takes over his father's glove business, running it successfully for many years, moving away from Newark to rustic Old Rimrock, there with his lovely wife and their only daughter Meredith. But into this story comes a tragedy that even the handsome, stoic and generally beloved Swede cannot overcome.

Comparing the book to The Great American Novel or The Plot Against America is somewhat unfair, since all they have in common is an author. Roth was making completely different statements in these three books, but American Pastoral is the most unforgiving of all of these books. Only slightly leavened with the humor that is abundant in The Great American Novel, it also lacks the intricate plot of The Plot Against America. The story of Pastoral continues the downward slide of Newark that was first hinted at in Goodbye, Columbus, contains the American anti-Semitism that is always just a little under the surface in the novels of Roth that I have read and has another Rothian hero, a talented young man whose life is trouble and strife.

Pulitzer or no, of the three American novels of Roth, American Pastoral would take the bronze if I were handing out the medals. I would recommend The Plot Against America for anyone who likes alternative historical fiction, and The Great American Novel for anyone who likes a good baseball novel. The Swede and Dawn and Merry were interesting company for the past few weeks, but I doubt I will be re-reading American Pastoral any time soon.


Yay, Nigeria! Another African flag, the continent where I need the most help. Seeing how my Nigerian reader got to my blog, I doubt I'll get a repeat customer, since I've never written about the rapper 50 Cent or the hot women in his videos, but a new flag is a new flag. Yay!


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Now playing: Nick Lowe - American Squirm
via FoxyTunes

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