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Paradise costs

In Philip Roth's world, the bucolic pleasures of American success can't muffle the terror fueled by loneliness

by Alexander C. Kafka

AMERICAN PASTORAL, by Philip Roth. Houghton Mifflin, 432 pages, $26.

In his previous two novels, Philip Roth reveled in outrageousness. In the delirious "confession" Operation Shylock, Mideast politics are the backdrop for the Keystone Kops misadventures of "Roth" and a deranged impersonator advocating diasporism, the return en masse of Israeli Jews to Europe. In Sabbath's Theater, the depraved and manic ex-puppeteer Mickey Sabbath systematically shreds what little remains of his marriage, his dignity, and his sanity.

But even Roth, plotting high-wire artist that he is, would risk losing his balance frolicking too long up there in the extreme reaches of credibility. So in his 22nd and latest book, American Pastoral, he makes a wise and timely descent, focusing on characters carved from convention, victims rather than perpetrators of chaos. The result is a tale as affecting as the last two, if less frenetic -- a sorrowful skewering of America's materialism, moral posturing, and self-mythologies.

Protagonist Seymour Levov -- or "the Swede," as he was nicknamed as a kid for his gentile, all-American looks -- is the very avatar of duty, diplomacy, and reliability. A former star high-school athlete, now a wealthy glove manufacturer, he embodies the postwar American dream. With his radiant wife, Dawn, he lives in a large stone house in the American pastoral beyond the Newark suburbs. He's an unreligious Jew who learned his beloved trade the hard way, as had his father and his father's father. Dawn, née Dwyer, is an Irish Catholic who reluctantly tapped her charms for the sake of her cash-strapped clan, earning the crown of Miss New Jersey 1949 because she wanted the accompanying scholarship money. Neither takes for granted the hard-won tranquillity of their idyllic adopted home town, Old Rimrock. It is their golden ring, the birthright built on the backs of their driven progenitors, and they seize it gratefully.

In Old Rimrock, life's rough edges can be trimmed like shrubs. Interfaith marriage? Anti-Semitism? Ivy League condescension? Purebred, hawkish Republicanism? They pose their obstacles for Levov, a classic liberal product of the New Deal, an ardent but responsible detractor of LBJ. But Levov is also the high-school triple letterer, the ex-Marine who deftly outmaneuvered foes on the ballfield and the basketball court. Well-liked and well-loved, the Swede, it seems, has succeeded in negotiating a little Cheeveresque stuffiness and made it to his patio-barbecue Eden.

Or has he? After all, this is Roth's world, where the only real birthright is the universal comeuppance. In Operation Shylock, Roth wrote that "a man's character isn't his fate; a man's fate is the joke that his life plays on his character." If there's an underlying consistency to Roth's acerbic stories, that's it. And sure enough, the joke life plays on the Levovs is their own daughter, Merry -- once sweet; now troubled, stuttering, and furious. Add to her innate teenage turbulence a hefty dose of '60s antiwar radicalism, stir, and the compound is both figuratively and literally explosive. In trying to see Merry through her unfathomable troubles, Levov rallies his superhuman love, patience, and perspective. But they're no match for the horribly violent and heartbreakingly vulnerable changeling he has spawned. And when Merry shatters his life, Levov finds that it's not only the broader world that's unknowable but also those closest to him, and even himself.

The publisher justifiably touts the book's "vigorous realism." But beneath it, American Pastoral is transparently allegorical. Even if it weren't for the Miltonian section headings -- "Paradise Remembered," "The Fall," and "Paradise Lost" -- there are other clues, among them names. Dawn calls the beef-cattle farm she develops on the Levovs' extensive property Arcady Breeders. There's Seymour Levov, who couldn't see less of what was rotting out his family if he tried, and whose troubles might be traced to a compulsion to see more of the world than did his ghettoized forebears. And of course there's the utterly mirthless Merry. Not so subtle, perhaps -- but remember, this is the author who in Operation Shylock introduced us to a nymphomaniac cancer-ward nurse who ran off with one of her patients, and whom Roth named Jinx Possesski.

If Old Rimrock is the Eden eager to expel its nouveau riche usurpers, the structure of the book, and our reintroduction to Roth's alter-ego narrator Nathan Zuckerman, suggests it's not just the American dream but the narrative dream that's suspect. It's Zuckerman -- who narrated a number of Roth's previous novels, and who figures prominently in the first quarter of this one -- who looked up to Levov as a kid and who now reluctantly tears down the myth of the man. And Levov's story, Zuckerman admits, is partly conjecture. The paradise each of us is really barred from, Zuckerman decides, is truly knowing anyone else. "When it comes to illuminating someone with the Swede's opacity, to understanding those regular guys everybody likes and who go about more or less incognito, it's up for grabs, it seems to me, as to whose guess is more rigorous than whose." Zuckerman muses, "Writing turns you into somebody who's always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on. What else could?"

We gradually learn that Zuckerman has underestimated both his own imaginative vigor and Levov's. Interestingly, Levov discovers his only when the full, horrible extent of Merry's terroristic destruction is unveiled. "No, he did not lack imagination any longer -- the imagining of the abhorrent was now effortless." It's then, too, that Levov understands that he and his daughter, one through bland graciousness and the other through incendiary rage, have both been trying futilely to escape the same thing: loneliness. "Yes," Levov thinks to himself, "alone we are, deeply alone, and always, in store for us, a layer of loneliness even deeper. . . . My stupid, stupid Merry dear, stupider even than your stupid father, not even blowing up buildings helps. . . . bow down in submission not to Karl Marx, my stuttering, angry, idiot child, not to Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse-tung -- bow down to the great god Loneliness!"

Beneath this existential cloud, Roth parades before us his usual obsessions -- intermarriage of Jews and non-Jews, sexual infidelity, unjust and sudden mayhem. He even manages to work in his signature leitmotif, masturbation, in a reminiscence at Zuckerman's 45th high-school reunion. But it's clearer than ever that Roth's narrative agility has soared way beyond his undeniable shtick. And like the knife thrower who has himself blindfolded for added effect, having convinced us no one's story can be told, Roth tells this one with chilling precision.

Alexander C. Kafka, a writer and journalist in Washington, DC, can be reached at