In an interview about his film Damage (1992), the late French director Louis Malle observed that when he began his career some decades ago, “it seemed like you had to really shake up the conventions of the society we lived in and come up with, you know, this need to liberate.” But, he continued, “now it seems like this has been done and now we are almost trying to pick up the pieces in a way.”
Malle knew whereof he spoke. A number of his earlier films, particularly Murmur of the Heart (1971), a genial story of mother-son incest in modern upper-class France, and Pretty Baby (1978), a lush portrayal of child prostitution in a New Orleans brothel at the turn of the century, were indeed documents of the “need to liberate.” By contrast, Damage is the painful story of a handsome middle-aged doctor who has everything—wealth, a burgeoning career, a beautiful wife, and two fine children—and destroys it all in an affair with his son’s fiancée.
Something of a similar pentimental pattern can be traced in the career of the American novelist Philip Roth, who was born in 1933, just one year after Malle. If Malle had his Pretty Baby, Roth had Portnoy’s Complaint (1967), whose main character obsessively rehearses the details, from the onanistic to the orgiastic, of his frenetic sex life. A compulsive interest in “shaking up the conventions” (Malle) or “break[ing] free from the accustomed constraints” (Roth) has been, indeed, a constant theme of this novelist’s work. But now in his newest book, American Pastoral,1 Roth presents a second look, sobering and even shattering, at the forces of “liberation” that radically changed American life in the decade of the 60’s and thereafter.
Whether intentionally or not, the title of Roth’s new novel inevitably conjures up other famous books that have had America on their minds (not including Roth’s own facetious The Great American Novel). To many a literary imagination, America represented from its inception a New World Eden where the American Adam faced boundless possibility and infinite, open-ended opportunity. But alongside this idea, which achieved a kind of literary-philosophical apotheosis in the essays of Emerson, there was also a sobering, tragic strain, inspired perhaps by the Calvinist preoccupation with the first garden of Eden and its human consequences, and embodied outstandingly in the great 19th-century novelists Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In our own century, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925), Norman Mailer’s An American Dream (1965), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), despite their manifest differences, have all been in this darker grain, and all deal, not coincidentally, with murder. Now, in Roth’s American Pastoral, the grain has darkened still further: the fruits of murder involve no less than the end of the American Dream itself, destroyed, even as it comes most fully to fruition, by its own offspring.
Actually, Roth began reexamining the ethos of liberation quite some time ago, particularly in The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981), and The Anatomy Lesson (1983): these three novels, plus an additional novella, The Prague Orgy, were collected in a single volume, Zuckerman Bound, in 1985. Nathan Zuckerman is Roth’s literary alter ego; the novels in which he figures offer a kind of parallel universe by means of which Roth examines his own life, his career, his Jewishness, the promise of America, the nature of art, and the taboo-breaking kind of fiction he became famous for.
In the new novel, Zuckerman, who like Roth is the author of a scandalously successful work which has made him notorious, returns to Newark in 1995 for his 45th high-school reunion. There he comes upon a story, in some ways like his own and in some ways the opposite: a near-epic saga of the dissolution of the old life, the old America, the old Jews. This time, however, the story is told not from the point of view of Zuckerman himself, super-cerebral verbal craftsman, but of a solid, ordinary, decent man who lived his life “right in the American grain” and never even asked “why are things the way they are” because they were always so perfect.
The story Zuckerman hears at his reunion concerns his legendary boyhood hero, Seymour “Swede” Levov, who graduated from the same high school in 1945, five years ahead of Zuckerman’s own class. Levov’s nickname derived from his stunning, Nordic blondness, as close to Gentile as a Jew could look. An all-around athlete who after graduation enlisted in the Marines, the Swede, on his return from the service, turned down the chance to play professional ball. Instead, after college, he entered the leathergoods business that had been started by his immigrant grandfather.
Although he enters the business partly to please his father, the Swede turns out to be very good at his work, learning it from the bottom up, loving the tangible and beautiful product—fine ladies’ gloves—that emerges from this exacting industry. He prospers mightily, marrying a beautiful Irish-American girl named Dawn Dwyer, a former Miss New Jersey, and moving out of Newark deep into the rural, old-money countryside. Swede’s bossy but fiercely devoted father Lou, one of “those pioneering Jewish fathers bursting with taboos,” objects both to the mixed marriage and to the move to exurbia, but the Swede places his hopes in the new age of assimilation even as in every other way he continues to remain the perfect, obedient, Jewish son.
In Old Rimrock, the Levovs refurbish a 170-year-old house and have a child, Merry, a lovely little girl who adores her father and cheerfully helps her mother raise a small herd of cattle. Though eventually Merry starts to stutter, a development which causes much pain to her and her parents, this little serpent is the only sign of trouble in their Eden.
But “then everything changes,” and tragedy strikes—the worst kind of tragedy, “the tragedy of a man not set up for tragedy.” Before her upbringing can be completed, Merry is overtaken by the 60’s. She finds friends among a radical clique near Columbia University in New York, grows fat and angry, begins to hate LBJ and his war and to denounce her country and her class, stuttering madly all the while. When her parents prevail upon her to stop her trips into New York, she becomes the radical scourge of Morristown High—“Ho Chi Levov,” they call her—and soon, horrifyingly, sets a bomb in the Old Rimrock post office, killing a much-respected local doctor. She goes underground and flees, only, we discover later, to kill three more people in a bombing on the West Coast. Her mother is nearly destroyed. At this very moment, Newark begins to burn in race riots, and the Swede’s business, already a victim of changing women’s fashions, stands on the verge of collapse. His American Pastoral has come to an end.
This much of the story Zuckerman hears, at the reunion, from the Swede’s younger brother, Jerry. It emerges that the Swede himself has been in touch with Zuckerman separately, on another matter, but in his characteristically quiet way, has not spoken of his own heartbreak. By now, in any case, he has died of cancer, so Zuckerman must take what he learns from Jerry and flesh out, by means of his own imagination, the story of this man “whose discontents were barely known to himself, awakening in middle age to the horror of self-reflection.” Roth’s artistry is such that we are soon totally convinced we are indeed getting the “real” story.
In his manly way (as Zuckerman reconstructs it), the Swede tries to see where his own responsibility lies for what has happened to his much-loved daughter, gleaning partial truths from different sources, only to be forced again and again to confront the blazing chaotic irrationality of it all. What he cannot understand, at least at first, is her hatred of America:
How could she “hate” this country when she had no conception of this country? How could a child of his be so blind as to revile the “rotten system” that had given her own family every opportunity to succeed? To revile her “capitalist” parents as though their wealth were the product of anything other than the unstinting industry of three generations. . . . There wasn’t much difference, and she knew it, between hating America and hating them.
Ultimately, the Swede begins to grasp that America is the spoiled Merry’s stand-in not only for the hard reality of her own family and its experience but for the inherent, flawed limitedness of the human condition, “for everything that was imperfect in life.” And in his agony the Swede also begins to apprehend something else: that behind the righteous indignation and “idealism” of the radical movement that snatched away his daughter lies a kind of counter-truth to decency—namely, the sheer, malicious joy of violent wasting:
He heard them laughing, the Weathermen, the [Black] Panthers, the angry ragtag army of the violent Uncorrupted who called him a criminal and hated his guts because he was one of those who own and have. The Swede finally found out! They were delirious with joy, delighted at having destroyed his once-pampered daughter and ruined his privileged life, shepherding him at long last to their truth. . . . Welcome aboard, capitalist dog! Welcome to the fucked-over-by-America human race!
What, then, has happened to interrupt the seamless unfolding of the American idyll, to bring about this horrid disruption between one generation and the next, the dissolution of “families full of tolerance and kindly, well-intentioned liberal goodwill”? A full year before her disappearance, Merry kept a poster in her room that bore the Weatherman motto: “We are against everything that is good and decent in America. We will loot and burn and destroy. We are the incubation of your mother’s nightmares.” And what had been the Swede’s response to this display?
[B]ecause even though he hadn’t liked it one bit he did not believe it was his right blah-blah blah-blah blah, because—out of regard for her property and her personal freedom—he couldn’t even pull down an awful poster, because he was not capable of even that much righteous violence, now the hideous realization of the nightmare had come along to test even further the limits of his enlightened tolerance.
The answer hinted at here is reminiscent of that given in an earlier American tragedy, Moby-Dick, in which First Mate Starbuck, representing the enlightened, procedural liberalism of another day, confronts the malignant virulence of hatred and rage embodied in Captain Ahab. Now, in American Pastoral, “the nice gentle man with his mild way of dealing with conflict and contradiction,” as Jerry Levov describes it, “the confident ex-athlete sensible and resourceful in any struggle with an adversary who is fair, comes up against the adversary who is not fair—the evil ineradicable from human dealings.”
But niceness and gentleness are not the only qualities at bay in the world of American Pastoral. So are decency and honor, as often represented in this novel by the Swede’s father, Lou Levov (it turns out that Zuckerman writes his story, too, as the Swede had requested at their meeting before his death). Lou’s instinctive respect for religion, his reflexive understanding of the difference between right and wrong, even his authoritarian forcefulness are shown to be generational attributes that may have held for a while, but that could not be passed on without a structure, a system of belief, to sustain them; neither could they be enforced through the power of character alone. Mulling over his father’s worry about a Jew deciding to put down roots in Waspish Old Rimrock, a younger Swede had thought to himself:
Our parents are not attuned to the possibilities, to the realities of the postwar world, where people can live in harmony, all sorts of people side by side no matter what their origins. This is a new generation and there is no need for that resentment stuff from anybody, them or us.
But then, later on, the Swede recalls this moment, and also his father’s objections to his marrying Dawn, with whom he had been so in love:
“In love” [his father had expostulated], what does that mean? What is “in love” going to do for you when you have a child? How are you going to raise a child? As a Catholic? As a Jew? No, you are going to raise a child who won’t be one thing or the other.
“His father was right,” thinks the Swede ruefully now, bereft as he himself is of the particularities by which truth, belief, and knowledge of the difference between right and wrong are transmitted. Without these, he and his wife have indeed raised a child who is neither “one thing or the other,” who is (he thinks to himself) “first a stutterer, then a killer.” Without these, the American idea—tolerance, openness, opportunity, self-creation—is insufficient even to sustain itself.
But the story is not over. Some years later, during the Watergate-beleaguered Nixon administration, Merry finally returns east. Her father finds her, living in a filthy hole in a burned-out section of Newark. Far from still embracing violence, she has become a Jain, denouncing every pleasure of the flesh, espousing a pacifism so complete she will hardly eat and has consequently grown skeletally thin.
Helpless to restore her, the Swede goes from the terminal anguish of their meeting to a large at-home family dinner planned long before. In a stunningly composed episode that ends the novel, the education of this battered, baffled father is completed. At the party, he learns of his wife’s ongoing infidelity with their neighbor, an old-line Wasp present for the evening in the company of his alcoholic wife. Also present is a woman with whom the Swede himself had a brief fling in the awful shattered aftermath of the bombing. She had been Merry’s speech therapist, and now the Swede discovers to his horror that it was she who had secretly harbored Merry in the weeks after the bombing when the girl might still have been stopped before doing worse.
The guests, ostensibly, are talking about the first pornographic film in American history to achieve mainstream fame, but
boiling away beneath the surface talk of Deep Throat was the far more disgusting and transgressive subject of . . . wantonness and betrayal and deception, of treachery and disunity among neighbors and friends, the subject of cruelty.
The 60’s, in brief, are not just about the bomber young and their war with “Amerika”; the 60’s, “the indigenous American berserk,” have entered the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, touching everything and everyone with their “mockery of human integrity, every ethical obligation destroyed.”
Today, the age of creative transgression is past; in Louis Malle’s phrase, we are trying to pick up the pieces. To be sure, life goes on; in the pages of American Pastoral, the Swede even remarries and has a new family. But after his look into the heart of darkness, nothing can ever be the same. And with America, too, as Roth’s scathing and mournful (if at points overwritten) book serves to remind us, life goes on, in some ways even more richly materialistic than before and even more astonishingly naive, puffed up as it now is with “multicultural” pretensions. But beneath the newly laid surface are the patched-over cracks which occasionally yawn open—when, for example, a sports hero gets away with a double murder, or a newborn baby delivered at a high-school prom in New Jersey is found discarded in a trash can.
1 Houghton Mifflin, 423 pp., $26.00.