American Pastoral by Philip Roth

15th January 2024. American warships are in the Eastern Mediterranean, in the Arabian Sea and in The Red Sea. The world looks on in horror at the suffering in Gaza as The Israeli Defence Force retaliates for the 07 October 2023 attacks on Israel. American and British jets have attacked targets in Yemen. Speculation rages as to whether a general conflagration will erupt in The Middle East.

The United States has economic and strategic interests around the globe, plus the military power to enforce its will. In a highly inter-connected world all its actions are instantly observed and commented upon. Corporate media, plus informal social media, work at high intensity around the clock. There is a continuous cacophony of reporting and opinion.

Taking a step back we can see that The United States has extended its global reach, especially since the end of The Second World War. The Vietnam War (1955-1975) (Vietnam War: Causes, Facts & Impact ( was a 20 year long conflict in which The United States believed it necessary to protect its interests in an arena eight thousand miles distant from its homeland.

For a fictional account of these times, and the American outlook on the world, turn to Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral. This is a story of an American personal and family tragedy. The author does not disguise the character of the novel – it is a Garden of Eden tale set in the post-war United States with some rather nasty serpents. The Chapter headings are ‘Paradise Remembered‘, ‘The Fall‘, and ‘Paradise Lost‘.

Playing by all the rules Seymour Levov is the owner of a successful glove making factory in Newark, New Jersey. He has the perfect wife, the perfect house and the perfect life. He is the embodiment of the American dream, his father having been a self-made successful Jewish businessman. Seymour is dubbed ‘The Swede’ at school for his tall, blond athletic looks. He is a sports star and hero worshipped by his contemporaries. From the 60s to the 90s observer Nathan Zuckerman (alter ego of Roth in a number of his novels) watches the American dream as it falls apart.

Philip Roth ( takes us deep into the mind of a man full of bewilderment and rage. We also learn a lot about 20th century America in the process. The author delivers a devastating critique of American attitudes, particularly through the eyes of Meredith, Levov’s daughter, who becomes an anti-Vietnam War campaigner. He also peppers the tale with piercing aperçus and Jewish flavoured wise cracks.

Here are some excerpts:

‘I kept waiting for him to lay bare something more than this pointed unobjectionableness, but all that rose to the surface was more surface’ (p. 23)

‘Death had burst into the dream of his life (as for the second time in ten years, it had burst into mine), and the things that disquiet men our age disquieted even him’ (p. 29)

‘Has anywhere since so engrossed you in its ocean of details? The detail. the immensity of the detail, the force of the detail, the weight of the detail – the rich endlessness of the detail surrounding you in your young life like the six feet of dirt that’ll be packed on your grave when you’re dead’ (p. 43)

‘Around three A.M. I left my bed and went to my desk, my head vibrant with the static of unelaborated thought’ (p. 45)

‘The black hole of self-absorption is bottomless’ (p.69)

‘He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach – that it makes no sense. And when that happens the happiness is never spontaneous again’ (p. 81)

‘Who is set up for tragedy and the incomprehensibility of suffering? Nobody. The tragedy of man not set up for tragedy – that is every man’s tragedy’ (p. 86)

‘But for her it had only to do with the extremes to which gentle people have to resort in a world where the great majority are without an ounce of conscience’ (p. 155)

‘Yes, alone we are, deeply alone, and always, in store for us, a loneliness even deeper. There is nothing we can do to dispose of that. Loneliness shouldn’t surprise us, as astonishing to experience as it may be. (p. 225)

‘The intelligence was in tact and yet she was mad, her logic a brand of logic bereft totally of the power to reason with which it had already entwined itself by the time she was ten’ (p. 247)

‘His vomit was on her face, a face but for the dark eyes, was most unlike her mother’s or her father’s. The veil was off, but behind the veil there was another veil. Isn’t there always? (p. 266)

‘Causes, clear answers, who is there to blame. Reasons, But there are no reasons. She is obliged to be as she is. We all are. Reasons are in books. (p. 281)

You may wish to ask yourself, after completing this gut-wrenching novel, whether America has changed much since the period in which it is set.

Published in 1997, this novel won the Pulitzer Prize of 1998.

432 pages in Vintage paperback edition.

ISBN 978-0099771814

Philip Roth died on 22 May 2018. An obituary may be found here Philip Roth obituary | Philip Roth | The Guardian

Philip Roth

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