Monday, December 28, 2009

American Pastoral - Philip Roth

We have a new first on Flying Houses--the first book to merit two different posts. This is what I wrote back in May:

Recently my parents were lent a copy of American Pastoral and after finishing Ulysses, decided to finish off the last 120 pages before I went back to something even easier to read than Roth in comparison with Joyce. I loved the beginning of American Pastoral--up through page 300 at least, but I have to admit the ending is a bit of a letdown. It is still a good book all in all.

But I see I am getting ahead of myself. I wanted to deliver on an unkept promise of the story of the beach reader in Nantucket. This occurred in the summer of 2007--early July. I was on a beach there with my family. The five of us or so tromped in, laid down our blankets, and chattered a bit as we completed this process. We put on suntan lotion and prepared to either go swimming or lay in the sun and read. Nearby us was a man who appeared to be a hippie, and I only say that because he had long hair. This is not to cast aspersions on hippies, but perhaps sometimes they possess this quality of being total asses when all along they feel they are behaving in line with the commonly-accepted paradigm of the hippie--which is, it's all good, I don't care, everything is permitted. Anyways he moved the five or so feet over to us that separated our spots, and said, "Hello. How are you?" We said, "Good." He said, "Are you enjoying yourself to day here on the beach?" And we said, "Yes, it's nice, thank you." And he said, "Well, I am trying to enjoy myself too, and I would appreciate it if you would keep it down a bit. We're all trying to enjoy the beach here, let's share it respectfully." Or some garbage like that. And I said, "I'm sorry! I'll shut up!" And he said, "Don't misunderstand me." And I think I said, "Oh, I understand you perfectly." And that was the end of it. He went back to his beach chair and he was reading The Plot Against America by Philip Roth.

The other anecdote is pretty much already told, and is not such a castigation of the type of readers Philip Roth can attract. That is to say, he is very popular, and though most people that like to read are cool, many people that like to read still do in fact suck horribly. I have read Goodbye, Columbus, Portnoy's Complaint, Everyman, and The Professor of Desire. Actually, one of the first posts on Flying Houses. Post #4. The 2nd book reviewed after Mann's Doctor Faustus. American Pastoral is automatically the best book I have read by Roth--but I have to say that I consider it on equal footing with Goodbye, Columbus. I have liked everything I've read by him though and look forward to many of his other works. I do not know if I can find anything to quote, primarily because I am so far removed from the majority of the novel, seven months ago. But I did want to comment on not enjoying the ending as much as the beginning.

Actually, the book takes a while to get started. For the first 120 pages or so, I wasn't really that interested in it. Oh, I was going to finish it alright, but it wasn't especially great. But then for about a 180 page stretch, it became truly great--right around the point where the Swede is talking to Merry about staying overnight in New York with dangerous people.

There are long stretches about running a glove factory which may bore some readers. I was slightly bored, but Roth kept it reasonably interesting. It seems like he did a lot of research to make the depiction of this business very accurate. These characters, and their setting, are fully lived in, they are almost 100% human. I think that is what separates this from the rest of his.

The ending though, vaguely disappointed me. It's like, after Merry does what she does, and becomes a fugitive, Roth goes into this description of the Swede's marriage to Dawn (but I feel like--didn't he have another wife after her? Wasn't that described early in the book? I have a hard time remembering.) in Old Rimrock, NJ and what basically amounts to one really long scene with the Swede's father and mother, Dawn, their neighbors Bill and Jessie Orcutt, and friends and speech therapist/protector of Merry, Sheila and Shelly Salzman, having a barbeque, and talking about Deep Throat and Nixon. This scene has its moments, such as the final shocking revelation about the fidelity of their marriage, and there was at least one hilarious moment (spoiler!):

"Well, perhaps not all, the Swede discovered as he stood peering in through the kitchen door from the big granite step outside. Why he hadn't just opened the door and gone straight ahead into his own kitchen to say that Jessie was in serious need of her husband was because of the way Orcutt was leaning over Dawn while Dawn was leaning over the sink, shucking the corn. In the first instant it looked to the Swede--despite the fact that Dawn needed no such instruction--as though Orcutt were showing Dawn how to shuck corn, bending over her from behind and, with his hands on hers, helping her get the knack of cleanly removing the husk and the silk. But if he was helping her learn to shuck corn, why, beneath the expanse of his Hawaiian shirt, were his hips and his buttocks moving like that? And why was Dawn saying--if the Swede was correctly reading her lips--"Not here, not here..." Why not shuck the corn here? The kitchen was as good a place as any. No, it took a moment to figure out that, one, they were not merely shucking corn together and two, not all of the effervescence, flamboyance, boldness, defiance, disappointment, and despair nibbling at the edges of the old-line durability was necessarily sated by wearing those shirts.
So this was why she was always losing her patience with Orcutt--to put me off track! Making cracks about his bloodlessness, his breeding, his empty warmth, putting him down like that whenever we are about to get into bed. Sure, she talks that way--she has to, she's in love with him. The unfaithfulness to the house was never unfaithfulness to the house--it was unfaithfulness. 'The poor wife doesn't drink for no reason. Always holding everything back. So busy being so polite,' Dawn said, 'so Princeton,' Dawn said, ' so unerring. He works so hard to be one-dimensional. That Wasp blandness. Living completely off what they once were. The man is simply not there half the time.'
Well, Orcutt was there now, right there. What the Swede believed he'd seen, before quickly turning back to the terrace and the steak on the fire, was Orcutt putting himself exactly where he intended to be, while telling Dawn exactly where he was. 'There! There! There! There!' And he did not appear to be holding anything back." (335-336)

And the book does end on a somewhat shocking note. On the whole, something I will definitely read again, and a very tough one for Roth to top. But I look forward to trying to find something I like even better in his oeuvre, because it's possible that exists.

1 comment:

Joe said...

CJK - I just borrowed this book from my sister. Though I skipped your spoiler section, it is fitting that I read this book to better understand the douchebaggery of Philip Roth fans. My impatience with "character-centric" writers may bubble over...