American Pastoral by Phillip Roth

This novel is a literary character study about an American man growing up in post-World War II New Jersey. Seymour “Swede” Levov grew up the son of a Jewish immigrant glove maker. His nickname was earned by being the blond haired, blue eyed high school heart throb that was a star on the football, baseball and basketball teams.

After high school, Swede leaves and joins the Marines. It is the very end of World War II and instead of storming the beaches in Europe or the Pacific, Swede becomes the star of the Marine baseball league. He meets a gentile girl but his parents dissuade him from marrying her.

He returns to Newark, New Jersey to learn the ropes in running his father’s glove factory from the ground up. He meets an Irish Catholic beauty pageant winner who has established her local identity as Miss New Jersey and failed to grab the Miss America Crown.

They have a daughter, Merry, born during the post-war baby boom. An only child, she is brought up in the suburban/semi-rural landscape outside of Newark – sheltered and protected from the urban environment and brought up as a typical suburbanite. She is showered with every advantage an only child can have.

As with every teenager, as Merry grows up, she begins to distance herself from her parents and their values and ideals. This part of the story takes place in the mid to late 1960’s against a backdrop of anti-war protests and political unrest. Merry starts to disappear on frequent trips to New York City despite being underage and against her parents’ wishes.

As the story unfolds, it turns out Merry has joined the Weathermen and through her radicalization, she bombs her local suburban grocery store/post office, killing a man who was the local doctor. Her parents are mortified and the story then becomes about how they are ostracized or pitied by other community members and their breakdowns – both personal and marital.

This is a slowly unfolding character study so readers should be advised to give it time and attention and not look for a big payoff. This is a thought piece. If I had to offer a comparison, it might be the 1970’s set “The Ice Storm.”

I enjoyed this book and recommend it for those who enjoy Mad Men era stories. This is an American classic.


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