The first two chapters of American Pastoral set the stage for the rest of the book. We are introduced to the protagonist, Swede Levov, through the eyes of the narrator, Skip Zuckerman, who idolized the popular and successful athlete fondly known as “The Swede” in their hometown of Newark, NJ. The hardworking, Jewish families of the 1940’s town placed the Swede was placed on a pedestal- he was their vision of the American dream realized: a tall, blonde, handsome, and brave boy who enlisted in the Marines and married a former Miss New Jersey. Decades later, the Swede contacts Skip (who is now a famous author) and asks him for help in writing a tribute for his deceased father. Intrigued, Skip meets him for dinner, only to become disappointed in the blandness that is the adult Swede. This section reminded me a little of a dream I once had, in which I was dating Tom Brady. At first, I was like “Wow this is so awesome I can’t believe I’m dating Tom Brady!” But then, he turned out to be really, really boring and I broke up with him because I couldn’t take it any more. Dream Tom Brady = Complete Letdown. So that’s how Skip felt after meeting the Swede, but the whole time the reader is aware that it’s just a set-up. There is much more to the Swede than what meets the eye, but neither we nor our narrator have found out what. At the end of the second chapter, Skip is just about to leave his 40th high school reunion when he learns that his childhood friend Jerry Levov, who just happens to be the Swede’s younger brother, is in attendance.
So far, I really like the book. I’ve never read anything by Roth before, and his writing style is admirable- vividly descriptive, yet crisp and clean. The language captures the essence of the characters and the settings to enrich the interesting plot. It’s not an easy read, but it’s not a slow one either. One of my favorite sequences was the anecdote about Jerry Levov making a coat out of hamster skins in an attempt to win the affections of his high school crush. (It didn’t work.)
Here’s a vocab list from the first two chapters:
Suffused: to spread through or over, as with liquid, color, or light
Contingency: the condition of being dependent on chance; uncertainty
Paragon: a model of excellence or perfection of a kind; a peerless example
Piker: a cautious gambler
Insuperable: impossible to overcome; insurmountable
If you’re currently reading American Pastoral or have in the past, feel free to post your thoughts in the comments. For those of who following along with the book club, please read to the end of Chapter 5 (p. 231 in my version) by next Sunday. I’m currently reading Chapter 4, so I’ll warn you that after the first two chapters, the story veers into a very dark place. Happy reading!