Seymour “the Swede” Levov is the All-American boy who grows up and seems to have the perfect life. A triple sports hero in his high school, the Swede goes on to serve in the Marines, then returns to his New Jersey hometown to take over the family business (glove manufacturing) from his father and marry the former Miss New Jersey of 1959. From the point of view of his brother’s best friend, Nathan, who meets him for dinner 40 years after high school, the Swede is still the sports hero of old, living the perfect all-American life. But appearances can be deceiving.
The novel begins from Nathan’s outside perspective, reminiscing about his high school years and the Swede’s glory days. The rest of the book is a story within a story, as Nathan (who is an author) tries to piece together his best guess as to what the Swede’s life was really like, from the Swede’s own point of view, after he learns some startling facts from the Swede’s brother at their 45th high school reunion.
American Pastoral is all about the challenges inherent in every person’s life, behind the scenes. It’s about the differences between how the world perceives you and your life and what is really true, as Nathan explains here, after meeting the Swede for dinner:
“You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception.”
From this passage, you can see some of that dense prose I was talking about (this is only half of the paragraph!) but also some of the thought-provoking philosophical musings Roth provides through Nathan. Behind the façade of his perfect life, the Swede deals with some horrifying events, things related to children, politics, marriage, and war. We see his perfect life fall apart and know that he somehow tries to put it together again.
The people in my book group who didn’t like the book (or didn’t finish it) were mostly put off by the dense prose and lengthy descriptions. While I’m not a fan of page-long paragraphs – which are common in this novel – I found that the effort of reading and thinking about this in-depth story were worthwhile, as I found its themes thought-provoking and universal. The story certainly resulted in some good discussions in our group. It’s a novel about the minutiae of family life and the cultural and political revolutions of the 1960’s and 1970’s, about love and war, about real life, with all of its ups and downs.