Tag Archives: Philip Roth

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

american-pastoral

An athletic superstar, beloved by all, is living the American dream until his reality becomes a nightmare he cannot awake from.

Seymour the Swede, Levov grows up in Newark, New Jersey,  an all-star athlete, admired by all, with the exception of his brother.  He possesses the likability we all dream of with an ease that only makes him all the more winsome.  Even as a Jewish Marine in the 1950’s, he faces little intolerance as his good-naturedness carries him through.  He marries Miss New Jersey, takes over his family’s glove factory and settles into the American pastoral.  The dream shatters when his 15-year-old daughter turns to anarchy in what she believes is the most appropriate response to the war in Vietnam.

The book’s narrator, Nathan Zuckerman is the instrument for the unfolding of Roth’s novel who has always admired the Swede.  He meets with him briefly for dinner and when attending his 45th High School reunion learns he has died and what led to his undoing.

The Swede’s wife, and former Miss New Jersey, Dawn Dwyer does not, literally, wear her crown with pride.   Moving to a rural town seems to allow her to avoid answering the questions related to her stint as beauty queen, yet her resentment of some snobbish neighbors make her questions her acceptance there.

Meredith “Merry” Levov seems troubled from her start.  A Colicky baby becomes a prepubescent stutterer who becomes the FBI’s most wanted.  We never get to know Merry and that is what unnerves this reader.

I would love to meet Mr. Roth and enjoy a glass of Sangria with some Paella in one of Newark’s many fine Portuguese restaurants.  After regaling me with all tales Down Neck, I’d reach across the table and beg him to answer all things unanswered from American Pastoral.  Yeah, yeah, yeah…I know it was intentional, but why not indulge me.  I would end our tete a tete  with a toast to this marvel for his recent lambasting of the man I will never acknowledge as POTUS.

Quotes:

And since we don’t just forget things because they don’t matter but also forget things because they matter too much–because each of us remembers and forgets in a pattern whose labyrinthine windings are an identification mark no less distinctive than a fingerprint–it’s no wonder that the shards of reality one person will cherish as a biography can seem to someone else who, say , happened to have some ten thousand dinners at the very same kitchen table, to be a willful excursion into mythomania.  

That can happen when people die–the argument with them drops away and people so flawed while they were drawing breath that at times they were all but unbearable now assert themselves in the most appealing way, and what was least to your liking the day before yesterday becomes in the limousine behind the hearse a cause not only for sympathetic amusement but for admiration.  

Here is someone not set up for life’s working out poorly, let alone for the impossible.  But who is set up for the impossible that is going to happen?  Who is set up for tragedy and the incomprehensibility of suffering?  Nobody.  The tragedy of the man not set up for tragedy–that is every mans’ tragedy.

Now, when she did not realize people were watching her, tears would rise in her eyes, eyes bearing that look both long accustomed to living with pain and startled to have been in so much pain so long.  

My rating for American Pastoral is an 8 out of 10.

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Next up, Bram Stoker’s Dracula…Dracula

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Book #52-Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

My initial recollection of Portnoy’s Complaint was not, surprisingly, the sex, but the laugh out loud reaction to the hysterical discourse penned by Philip Roth in 1967.

As I read (and guffawed), I must admit I questioned its place on the Modern Library’s list, but after much vacillating on my part, I looked beyond the mere details to understand why it landed on the list.

We find  33-year-old Alexander Portnoy, a successful attorney working as the Assistant Commissioner of Opportunity for the city of New York, on the couch of his analyst, Dr. Spielvogel.  The couch serves as the novel’s setting as we are subjected to Portnoy’s “complaints”, including graphic details on the many ways he satiates his immense sexual appetite.  Using the doctor-patient session as his narrative vehicle was quite genius as it allowed for painfully forthright and lewd conversation that would have seemed superfluous in another setting.

The story opens in Newark, NJ where the Portnoy family reside within the borders that define their Jewish neighborhood (hmm so did Roth…).  Set during the 1960’s sexual revolution, Portnoy’s canvas reveals the conflicting lure of freedom with familial obligations, with sexual gratification winning out time and again.  We follow Alex from childhood to adulthood and see his perception of life; his anxious mother and doting father, reverse anti-semitism, suicide, sexual promiscuity, etc.

Mary Jane Reed, aka The Monkey, so named by Portnoy is an illiterate model from West Virginia who at first appears to have a sexual appetite that matches Portnoy, but she comes to understand that even that is not enough to satisfy Portnoy, who begins to wonder if he will ever find fulfillment.

Naomi, aka The Jewish Pumpkin (don’t ask, just read the book) is my personal favorite.  She lives in Israel in a kibbutz after serving in the Israel army and is an actual humanitarian as opposed to Portnoy, as she unabashedly points out.   Portnoy becomes quickly infatuated with her and when she returns to his hotel, she admonishes his sexual suggestions.  Not taking no for an answer, he attempts to continue and a physical altercation ensues.  After he overpowers the unwilling Naomi, Portnoy suffers from erectile dysfunction and is berated and labeled “pig” and bid adieu with a swift kick to the chest.

Cousin Heshie falls for Alice Dembosky much to the disappointment of his family.  In fact, they are so outraged, Heshie’s father pays Alice a visit where he explains that Heshie is dying, but does not know it and needs to be alone with no excitement that could kill him.  Alice agrees to end their relationship so Heshie can “live” which prompts him to enlist where he is promptly killed during the Normandy invasion.

What I enjoyed were the distinct voices which I could hear quite clearly.  What was disappointing were the unresolved relationships in Portnoy’s life; mother/son, father/son, pregnant girlfriend from college, etc.  Although this may have been the intent,  I do like to see how things turn out.

Roth is the first author from the Modern Library’s list that is still living, so I suppose I could try for a real sit down…yeah, anyway.  If possible, I’d like to hear about growing up in Newark and his recollections of the freedom of the 60’s.

My rating for Portnoy’s Complaint is an 8 out of 10.

To see the entire list,  visit Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.

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Next up, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire

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