American Pastoral (Roth)

There is an American mythology that is long overdue for demolition. It says that if you act a certain way and make particular choices, your life will be fine, good even. Roth’s protagonist, the Swede, certainly believes in it. He’s a great athlete, a popular guy, he follows his father into the family business, marries the right woman, etc.. With a few hitches, all goes smoothly for him until. . . well, that would be a spoiler.

There is a hurricane momentum to Roth’s writing. When I read The Human Stain (an astonishingly good book), I don’t think I took a breath for the first 60 pages. His sentences race forward and his paragraphs are epic. Roth’s story branches out in time and space with seemingly reckless (but obviously careful) abandon. You have met his characters, you have heard them speak and know their strengths and weaknesses. This is a powerhouse of a book – an epic, deserving of section titles like, “Paradise Remembered,” “The Fall,” and “Paradise Lost.”

If I’m right that it’s an epic, I’m also right that it’s a self-aware one. There are no more angels in america, Roth seems to be saying, not because of anything that has happened – like Nixon being elected – but because there never were any. There are no rules; it’s all a mirage. And it is clear that things to fall apart, and that the centre (read: the Swede) cannot hold.


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