The Swede was a star athlete in his high school’s football, basketball, and baseball team. He could go on to be a member of the sports teams like Yankees or Giants in New York, but as a dutiful son he gave up his own dream to serve as an apprentice in his father’s leather glove company in Newark. In the post WWII era, the business boomed and the Swede became successful. To add to this perfect picture, he married Miss New Jersey. They had a big house and raised a daughter named Merry.
However all this perfect life of the Swede crumbled when Merry, at the age of 16, blew up the local post office one early morning and killed a doctor who came to post his letter before his morning shift. It’s part of the larger movement of the social unrest during the era of anti-Vietnam-War protests. The Swede’s life was blown to pieces instantly. Since Merry told her classmates about her upcoming actions, she became a criminal in national news, and went into hiding afterwards.
The Swede’s wife Dawn had a nervous breakdown and went to a mental institution for a while. When she came back, she wanted to build a new house. Their marriage subsequently fell apart and they divorced.
After disappearing for five years, Merry emerged. Now was she going to damage the Swede’s life even more?
This is the book “American Pastoral” by Philip Roth. It is a very well written book with a lot of quotable lines. I especially like the parts when immigrants’ life are described and immigrants’ children’s life are written with familiarity and affection–they grew up, feeling the pressure and expectation of their parents. In addition, the hard work and long hour at the leather factory is also described in detail–the terrible working condition is depicted as well as the enjoyment of the workmanship.
However what really makes me laugh about this book is its theme–at least I feel it is the author’s theme–that men usually have a wonderful life, but women around them spoil the fun for them.
First it is the Swede. He’s doing great and things go well in his life. Then Merry, his daughter, blew this perfect picture to pieces and became a fugitive murderer. The Swede’s wife Dawn, the former Miss New Jersey, did a lot to make the life of the Swede less enjoyable. First she built a farm next to their house to raise and milk cows, which didn’t make a penny of profit. Second, after Merry became an anti-war criminal, Dawn couldn’t help or comfort her husband. Instead she had a depression and mental breakdown herself, which required his assistance in recovery. After this episode, she wanted to build a new house and ended up having an affair with the architect, which was the last straw that broke their marriage.
The second one is the Swede’s high school buddy Barry, who was a law professor. Barry married Marcia, a literature professor. Marcia didn’t wear feminine clothes, was a “non-conformist with staggering self certainty”. She often did things to “inform you that nothing you were saying was correct.” And of course Barry’s perfect life is half spoiled by such an ugly figure like Marcia in the opinion of the Swede.
The third one is the architect Mr. Orcutt, who lived in the same town. Mr. Orcutt was handsome, resourceful, and engaging. He was a perfect figure and very involved in the community affairs. However Mrs. Orcutt was “a haggard old woman, an undernourished drunk” who could have “three scotch and four cigarettes in under one hour.”
I really can’t help laughing that in the author’s circle and in his world view, there are so many perfect examples of men who are handsome, responsible, moral, and successful. And unfortunately their women are all train-wrecks who wreak havoc on their men’s life.
The author is obviously biased and I really want to say something to rebut his claim, but how can I say it in a way that’s not cliche and not boring?