After a chance encounter, Roth’s long-time protagonist and fictional alter ego, Zuckerman, remembers an athletic star and all-round golden boy from his school days, a boy affectionately known as “the Swede”. At a school reunion he meets the Swede’s brother again, and makes the shocking discovery that the man he thought was too blandly wholesome to be interesting had suffered an appalling family tragedy. The Swede and his beauty queen wife’s angry teenage daughter Merry commits a dreadful crime which ultimately destroys her own life and shatters that of her doting parents. The book then becomes Zuckerman’s imagined sketch of the events leading up to the tragedy and its appalling aftermath, in which the Swede tries to come to terms with Merry’s actions and his own culpability.
It is a compelling story, skilfully told, thought-provoking, touching, especially in a year of yet another school shooting. Reviews mention the “elegiac” tone, and at its most straightforward reading it is an elegy for the American dream (trite but true). It also mourns the immigrant’s doomed dream of assimilation, parents’ futile wishes for their children (for good lives free from suffering) as well as the dream we all share of connection with fellow humans.
“And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims?…The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.”
American Pastoral is an elegy for man’s insistence on understanding others, what Roth calls “the Swede’s disorder: the inability to draw conclusions about anything but exteriors.” Early on Zuckerman muses over the human inability to grasp the truth about another human being, and this sad conclusion is echoed throughout the book. Zuckerman begins to understand that he never really knew who the Swede was, and the Swede, for all his magnetic goodness, is at first puzzled by the mystery of his wayward daughter and then, brutally, destroyed by the unknowability of everyone around him. This is beautifully portrayed along several dynamics (family, social circle, lovers) culminating in an ill-fated dinner party set-piece, where the slow burn doom of the preceding chapters at last comes to its smashing conclusion.