American Pastoral, Philip Roth

American Pastoral is the story of a decent man who built a wonderful life, where everything is great until his teenage daughter goes off the rails in the late 1960s and blows up the local post office.

It’s the story of Seymour ‘The Swede’ Levov, a Jewish-American high school sports star who married Miss New Jersey before bringing his his family’s glove manufacturing business to new heights of success.

Levov is a decent, liberal-minded and fair employer, who tries to be loyal to the people and city of Newark, even as high costs and social unrest make it almost impossible to thrive in the city.

The most powerful part of the novel takes place after his teenage daughter becomes a fugitive. The Swede plays events over in his head, trying to figure out where and when and how he might have gone wrong. Eventually, in his over-wrought state, he starts seeing Marian apparitions of Angela Davis in his kitchen, apparitions to whom he prays for divine intercession.

His dilemma was very real for a generation of post-WWII American parents, FDR democrats who were confused and horrified by the Vietnam War, racial violence, the collapse of inner cities and the scandal of Watergate. These historical events are referred to tangentially; it is the turmoil of The Swede and the Levov family that stays front and centre.

The question is constantly posed – what could he have done differently? Which lifestyle choices, personal choices, educational choices, religious choices and commercial choices could have made a difference? Each iteration of his tortuous rumination develops the plot a little further, while teasing out the way that the American dream can, in an instant, be transformed into an American nightmare.

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