Sun, 06 Aug 2017
What is Life?

American Pastoral
By Philip Roth

Score: 5/5

Life is just a short period of time in which you are alive

So replies Meredith "Merry" Levov to the teachers assignment that week, "What is Life?". Merry is the daughter of the Swede (so nick-named by a teacher at school) and his beautiful wife Dawn, Miss New Jersey 1949 (she hates being defined by this). In the evening, the parents laugh about their daughter's precocious intelligence but her odd unsentimentality grows in the years to come, an intellectual intensity that explodes later. America changes in the sixties and so does their daughter; and their world comes tumbling down.

Of the few fair-complexioned Jewish students in our preponderantly Jewish public high school, none possessed anything remotely like the steep-jawed insentient Viking mask of this blue-eyed blond born into our tribe as Seymour Irving Levov.

The Swede has it all and grows up in a post-war America brimming with optimism for the future; an all round athlete, good looking, ex-Marine (a drill instructor no less) but luckily misses the fighting as Japan surrenders. Laid back and comfortable in his own skin, everyone loves him. He even marries a Catholic: From Elizabeth. A shiksa. Dawn Dwyer. He'd done it. The American dream.

This novel is very funny in parts and also very moving. Much is an amazing internal struggle by Seymour Levov to understand the turn his life has taken. Roth writes an elegy almost, to an America that (sometimes literally) blew up, a Newark City that burned in riots and went down hill from there; a middle class that fled but couldn't escape the changes.

Roth beautifully evokes an old mid-20th Century "Americana", a place of growing wealth and huge aspiration. Everything is going so well, until the year 1968 and everything starts to fall apart because of Merry's cataclysmic actions. This is the power of the book; the beauty and wondrous potential so well described, colliding with the terrible fragility and reality of the world as it is. A great book and justly a Pulitzer Prize winner.