Tuesday, 26 April 2011

New Jersey and American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997)

American Pastoral is the posthumous narrative of the life of fictional former high-school sports star Seymour "The Swede" Levov, born and raised in the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark where Philip Roth himself grew up (the novel is narrated by Roth's alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman). While Weequahic was a largely middle class Jewish neighborhood prior to the 1960s (when Roth would have been living there) the demographic makeup of the area, as was the case with the rest of Newark, was altered radically following the 1967 Newark riots, an event that provides a dramatic backdrop to the unfolding story as Seymour Levov stands his ground against the riot that is tearing his own family apart. The 1967 Newark riots were a major civil disturbance that occurred between July 12 and July 17, 1967 when a large number of African-Americans, feeling largely disenfranchised, powerless and subject to police brutality, took to the streets after a rumour spread that John H. Smith, a black cabdriver, had been killed in police custody following his arrest for improperly passing a police car. The six days of rioting, looting, and destruction left 26 dead, 725 injured and led to close to 1,500 arrests. Property damage exceeded $10 million. Although in American Pastoral Seymour Levov, who has taken over his father's glove factory "Newark Maid", bravely refuses to flee during the riots, he, like many other industries based in the city, eventually moves his factories out of the city. The 1967 riots resulted in a significant population loss of both white and black middle classes and the city lost over 100,000 residents between 1960 and 1990. Poverty remains a consistent problem in Newark, despite its revitalization in recent years.

American Pastoral is a speculative study of a life, as imagined by Nathan Zuckerman, and whilst the plot sounds like prime political thriller material along similar lines to the 1999 film Arlington Road - the teenage daughter of a perfect middle-class suburban family becomes a wanted terrorist in hiding - the plot is merely a thin clothesline on which Roth hangs his lengthy meditations on the many changes that American life underwent during the 1960s and 1970s. So along the way we get extended meticulous digressions on everything from the glove-making industry to cattle-breeding and beauty pageants and more besides. It can be a trying read if you‘re one for plot-driven fiction and it is no surprise that with few possible exceptions Roth has never been truly successfully adapted for the screen - as this is his style. Roth is a highly astute writer in both his very precise prose and big ideas but I would never recommend him as a gripping read.

Next: Pennsylvania

1 comment:

  1. Must be an enjoyable read American Pastoral by Philip Roth. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.