Books: The war at home

Laurie Taylor welcomes another tragic hero scorched by the Sixties

American Pastoral by Philip Roth, Jonathan Cape, pounds 15.99

It is almost too good to be true. No sooner have we stepped off that great roller-coaster ride through the vicissitudes of old age in the company of the disorderly, fornicating hero of Sabbath's Theatre than Philip Roth is again urging us aboard an equally exhilarating journey through the life and times of another perfectly realised tragic hero.

Whereas Mickey Sabbath revelled in the wicked anarchy of his own life and railed endlessly against the ordered hypocrisy of others, Roth's new hero, Seymour "Swede" Levov, is a man who might have stepped straight from the pages of any American manual on self-improvement. Tall, blond, and blue-eyed, with a long list of sporting achievements, he has a former Miss New Jersey as a devoted wife, and an unassailable position as head of a hugely successful glove-making company. Where, asks the narrator - Roth's familiar alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman - was the irrationality in this man who had once been his childhood hero? "Where was the cry-baby in him? Where were the wayward temptations?"

Only at a 45th high-school reunion does Zuckerman learn from Seymour's brother Jerry how wrong he has been to regard Swede as the "embodiment of nothing". For Seymour and his wife, Mary Dawn, had a daughter, Meredith - Merry. At first she seemed just another addition to the picture-postcard family, a girl with golden hair, long, slender limbs and high IQ whose childhood days surrounded by wealth, health and love were marred only by a fearful stutter.

But then came Vietnam, and Merry's dramatic conversion to the anti-war cause. Her impediment "became the machete to mow all bastard lies down. `You f-f-fucking madman! You heartless mi-mi-mi-miserable m-monster!', she snarled at Lyndon Johnson whenever his face appeared on the seven o'clock news." One day Merry walks out of the family home, blows up the general store, kills a passer-by, and vanishes.

Zuckerman's own profound sense of the unknowability of other human beings is now compounded by Swede's utter inability to comprehend his daughter's motives. How could the child of such a decent, liberal background become a terrorist? A trap-door has opened in his life and he watches in horror as the rationality by which he lived disappears into a pit of meaninglessness. "He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach - that it makes no sense".

With all his usual verve, Roth teases out the paradoxes raised by this parental nightmare: how the optimism and certainty of American life have been replaced by self-destructive turmoil. "Three generations in raptures over America ... And now with the fourth it had all come to nothing. The total vandalisation of their world."

And then, when Swede finally locates his daughter in a filthy, downtown part of Newark, where she is starving herself to death in allegiance to a religion which forbids her to harm to microscopic organisms, comes the recognition of the irreconcilability of the two poles of the American character: rational self-improvement and uninhibited individualism. "They are crying intensely, the dependable father ... for whom keeping chaos at bay had been intuition's chosen path to certainty ... and the daughter who is chaos itself".

There is, inevitably, ample space for Roth's customary digressions into the precisely remembered worlds of childhood and adolescence. But, as in Sabbath's Theatre, the author seems too engaged by the vigour of the ideas he has set in motion to play the slightly self-indulgent games about the relationship between the writer and world of his creation which lay at the heart of the earlier Zuckerman trilogy. And though Roth's core message is about the tragedies that result from the unknowability of others, this magnificent novel is still heroic in tone and conclusion.

For even that incomprehension can provide an existential rationale. It's getting people wrong that is living, "getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, after careful consideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive; we're wrong".

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before