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".