Sunday, November 8, 2015

Paradise Confused

“American Pastoral,” by Phillip Roth, 1997

Phillip Roth is one of the ‘great white male middle-class’ writers of the last decades in the U.S.  In this book he attempts to portray the wider 1960s and early 1970s and fails.  At bottom, this is a claustrophobic novel.  It is like being locked in the obsessive mind of, first, the ‘writer’ of the Newark High class of 1950, Skip Zuckerman (a thinly disguised Roth?), and then his hero, the uber-jock, conformist and kind man, Seymour “Swede” Levov.  In the process, it is hard to understand why either is worth our attention.  In the course of the novel, the writer disappears and instead his idol becomes the narrator.

Swede is an assimilating Jew who drops the possibility of an incredible sports career and marries a shiksa Ms. New Jersey.  He takes over the family business making gloves in Newark, then moves to a giant house in Old Rimrock, a fake rich suburb somewhere in New Jersey. The "Swede" is a large and gifted athlete - and Roth goes into ecstasies about the athletic and cultural skills of this 'body.'  The social subtext is the existences and maintenance of a ‘Jewish’ identity in patrician, goy New Jersey.  This might be the point for some readers, but the book attempts to carry much more historical weight than that.

1972 Bombing of North Vietnam
The book is a not so subtle parallel to Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” as the sections are called “Paradise Remembered,” then “The Fall,” then “Paradise Lost.”  The ‘paradise’ is the complacent world of 1950s high school sports, adolescent awkwardness, puppy love and innocence, a period that nearly everyone goes through. For Jewish youth of the second or third generation, it was their chance to become somewhat like the Christian ‘goys.’   Here it is reflected in a long description of a high school reunion 45 years later.  The ‘fall’ in this idyllic life is Swede’s child Merry.  She is a stutterer that grows up to be a Vietnam antiwar activist, who at the age of 16 decides to put a bomb in the neighborhood post office and kills an innocent doctor.  She goes on to kill 3 other people with bombs.  Oddly, the police don’t track her; nor is her admission to her father that she did it even credible.  Yet this is the central event in the book.

The problem is nothing like this happened during the Vietnam war era.  It’s like the myth of ‘spitting’ on troops by anti-war activists.  There were plenty of bombings, yes, all over the country, but almost no one was killed in those bombings.  Roth attempts to link Merry to the “Weatherman,” an ultra-left split from SDS.  Yet the Weatherman didn’t kill any innocent civilians.  Their only victims were themselves – 3 dying in a townhouse in New York when one of their bombs exploded accidentally.  The one innocent victim of an anti-war bombing that I know of was in Madison, Wisconsin, at the Army Mathematics Research Center in 1970.  That is it.  One.   

The book’s characters associate Marx, Che, the Black Panthers and the Vietnamese with ‘crazy.’   Working-class labor exploitation is only referred to sarcastically.  Swede at one point oddly hopes that Angela Davis, a member of the Communist Party, will help him find Merry, who has gone underground.  Merry eventually leaves the anti-war movement and becomes a religious ‘Jain’ that her father later locates in a stinking tenement room in Newark.

The consuming focus on this ‘insane’ young woman who passionately hated the war says more about Roth than the 1960s or 1970s.  There is no mention of the actual incineration of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos by the real bombers – Johnson, Nixon, LeMay, McNamara, Kissinger.  Not one mention of the 1968 assassination of MLK and the oppression of black people in the city – which led to the rebellion/riots in Newark.  This book focuses so much on psychological and individual issues that the real world outside the cramped heads of the characters disappears.  It is typical middle-class fiction.  And yet this book got kudos from the San Francisco Chronicle, Time, LA Times, Playboy, People, the St. Louis Dispatch and the NY Observer.  Most importantly, this book won the Pulitzer Prize!  Really.

More pointedly, 4 women are the ‘bad people’ in this book.  All are too left-wing.  Merry the murderer; some sexually crazy anti-war blackmailer named Linda Cohen; a left-wing neighbor who dresses in caftans, Marcia; and Sheila, another neighbor who hid Merry from the police and her family right after the bombing.  It is almost as if femininity is politically deviant too.  Roth has a long history of being criticized by the feminist movement and this book would seem to offer no exception.  At the end of the book, Swede ultimately suspects his own wife Dawn of an affair with a rich gentile architect, so no woman goes unscathed.  

The 1968 riots tear Newark apart, but we don’t know why from this book.  Only a few gunshots from racist police break the windows of the glove factory, as it has a sign on the window that says it employs black people, written to protect it from rioters.  Swede’s father Lou is the family patriarch, decrying the death of Newark, explaining how to make gloves and being angry about what is wrong with the film “Deep Throat” and Linda Lovelace.   It seems the 1960s destroyed the upper middle-class dreams of reasonable, hard-working, considerate Jewish businessmen and dropped them into an ocean of violence, infidelity, sex, conformism and disappearing Jewishness.  

The best part of the book is actually the tours inside the Newark glove factory and the information on the dirty and difficult business of making fine leather gloves, which as a piece of clothing is one of the hardest to make well.  Roth’s detailed descriptions of the cutters dressed in suits and ties link the fine hand work to a different era.  Yet that is small compensation for a novel that offers a dishonest window into its time.

(see reviews of “The Way the Wind Blew,” about the Weather Underground; “The Bomb,” about the Haymarket events; “Kill Anything That Moves,” about the attempted destruction of Vietnam; “People’s History of the Vietnam War” and other books on Vietnam, all below.  Use blog search box, upper left.)

(Sorry John!)
Red Frog
November 8, 2015

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