Innocence Lost

Reading between the lines.
May 21 1997 3:30 AM

Innocence Lost

Philip Roth's American fulminations.

American Pastoral
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin Co.; 423 pages; $26

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Philip Roth's American Pastoral arrived in the bookstores a few weeks ago, and I have been hearing about it ever since. A friend regales me over lunch with Philip Roth's inflamed passion against American innocence. Someone else telephones to discuss the radicalism of the 1960s, generational warfare, and the intricacies of black-Jewish relations in industrial New Jersey, as depicted by Philip Roth. A mailman stops me in the street--I'm not making this up--to expound his own deduction from Philip Roth's tale of family calamity, to wit, that without a clear sense of God, modern Americans are doomed to lose their bearings and society will go to hell. The mailman, it's true, has not yet read the novel, only the reviews, and our lively conversation (many skyward hand gestures) veers in theological directions alien to American Pastoral. But I cite the theological detour to show what is going on these days every time I pick up the phone or loll about on the springtime sidewalk.

The novel itself, Roth's fulmination against American innocence, is mostly a portrait of a single personage, a New Jersey ladies'-glove manufacturer named Seymour Levov, "the Swede"--a husband and father of exasperating conventionality, serene, handsome, athletic, bland, shallow, a man who seems to have been extracted, as if by a blender, from the onion-and-garlic world of the immigrant Jews, until every last hint of taste and texture have finally disappeared. And on this perfectly nice and liberal-minded businessman, Roth, in his malicious rage, has bestowed a monster of a daughter, a stuttering left-wing bomb thrower and murderous lunatic destined to ruin her daddy's family and his life--just to show what comes of so much cheer and post-ethnic American optimism.

The Swede is a great character. I can't say that I entirely understand him, his placidity and easy manner--but then, nobody understands him. Is he mad--to be so passive and smiley in our world of tragedy and foreboding? Or merely stupid? Not even the world-famous novelist Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's narrator, can figure it out. About the Swede, Roth's Zuckerman writes, "Something had turned him into a human platitude." But the motive factor remains elusive. "All that rose to the surface was more surface." It was clever of Roth to come up with such a personality and to send him wandering around the New Jersey wilds. But the peculiar virtue of this characterless character is that he requires Roth to write about him in an ever-shifting series of tones, each more precise than the last, in an effort to define what cannot be defined.

There are passages where Roth, describing the rural New Jersey landscape from within the Swede's benign imagination, produces a fine, sugary lyricism that is not more than 5 percent ironic--a lyricism of white pasture fences and rolling hay fields and the Swede pretending to be Johnny Appleseed, tossing his imaginary seed. Then again, there are passages of dark fury--the outraged indignation of the Swede's wised-up brother, Jerry the Miami heart surgeon, who can't stand the innocence any longer, and whose drumbeat imprecations achieve a kind of poetry:

What are you? Do you know? What you are is you're always trying to smooth things over. What you are is always trying to be moderate. What you are is never telling the truth if you think it's going to hurt someone's feelings. ... The one who abides everything patiently. The one with the ultimate decorum. ... Decorum. Decorum is what you spit in the face of. Well, your daughter spit in it for you, didn't she?

Or this, even louder (an ability to turn up the volume is one of Roth's special strengths), again in Jerry's voice:

You think you know what a man is? You have no idea what a man is. You think you know what a daughter is? You have no idea what a daughter is. You think you know what this country is? You have no idea what this country is. You have a false image of everything. All you know is what a fucking glove is. This country is frightening.

I could cite a dozen other tones--of pleading impatience, of emotional exhaustion, of inveigling desperation, and so forth--every possible reaction to the Swede and his predicament. I wonder if Roth himself appreciates how lively and persuasive these tones are, how vividly they conjure up the Swede's reality. In any case, as if still unsatisfied, around these tones Roth has orchestrated a still vaster range of side topics--ethnic sociology (Jews, blacks, Irish, WASPs, intermarriage), industrial history (glove-making craftsmanship and its decline, recounted at length), political debate (the crimes of Presidents Johnson and Nixon, the migraine rhetoric of Angela Davis), and more, some of it rendered with exquisite precision, which is fun to read.

The details do pile up, though, until you begin to think about the research that Roth must have undertaken, which is always a bad sign. Then he compounds his error by investing these background details with portentous meanings about America and its history, and he compounds the compound by overheating the plot (you will have to discover the details for yourself). By the end, he is delivering verdicts like this: "The outlaws are everywhere. They're inside the gates." Or: He tells us that "the real subject" is one of "wantonness and betrayal and deception, of treachery and disunity among neighbors and friends, the subject of cruelty. The mockery of human integrity, every ethical obligation destroyed."

So here is a novel that is not only about the '60s but exudes a distinctly '60s fume of windy prophetic curse-hurling. A good idea, all puffed up, which is a bad idea. The result is fascinating without being exactly moving. A terrific book, halfway undermined. But I don't want to make too much of my complaints, given that, in my little circle of friends, no error or misjudgment on Roth's part appears to have inhibited anyone's desire to subject American Pastoral to analytic vivisection. Mayhem, family collapse, the occasional terrorist bomb, mad government policies, human platitudes--in this pleasant springtime of 1997, these, as Roth renders them, do seem to be everyone's favorite topics of conversation.

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