A couple of years ago, when I had journeyed through roughly half of his writings, I made some preliminary observations about the fictional world invented by Philip Roth. In the course of discussion, I advanced two hypotheses. The first was that Roth hated children, whom he regarded as encumbrances to male freedom and pleasure. The second is that although Roth had invented a boatload of adult male narcissists, he had not created a single mensch -- a caring, responsible, mature man. In Roth's vision of the world, I suggested, "only a schmuck would be a mensch."
After a pause for rest and rehabilitation, I've now resumed my upriver voyage to the heart of the Rothworld. I've just finished reading American Pastoral (1997), a novel set during the difficult, still-controversial Vietnam war. I must boast that my hypotheses about children and menschdom are fully confirmed by the new evidence provided by American Pastoral. In this novel, children are indeed hateful, and the mensch who has at last made an appearance is nothing more than a schmeggegy. Roth has given us Seymour "Swede" Levov, an archetypal mensch, and behold, what a poor naive schmuck is he! Levov nurtures everyone he encounters, but Roth works it so that his virtue leads directly to his downfall. Poor Swede owns and manages an exemplary factory but he is betrayed by his workers; he's loyal to Newark, so Newark riots and pillages; he loves and supports his fragile wife only to discover that she's sleeping with his friend. Most of all, he adores his daughter, unamusingly called Merry, who turns out to be, just as we might expect, a devil child. She screams unaccountably from the moment of birth and stutters through her awkward childhood (Roth seems to think that colic and speech impediments are signs of inherent viciousness). At adolescence, Merry transforms into an unhandsome Patty Hearst clone who participates in several senseless but deadly political bombings. She then goes underground, only to return secretly in Newark to haunt Levov all the more. Under this succession of attacks, Swede Levov's carefully-crafted menschdom is little-by-little exposed as naive schmuckhood. If only Levov had taken the Zuckerman route: love only thyself, fuck 'em and forget 'em; abort when all else fails.
And now, for the benefit of younger readers, I pause for a few refresher sentences about the historiography of the Vietnamese catastrophe. The significance of this period is highly contested. For those on the left, the war was a foolish attempt to block a peasant uprising against neo-colonialist overlords. The Bundys and Lyndonites and Kissingers squandered fifty thousand American and two million Vietnamese lives (plus moral authority and treasure uncountable). Nevertheless, as the left sees it, the war provided an opportunity for heroism: for the first time in human history, a free and patriotic people, making use of peaceful assemblies, petitions, political activism, boycotts, and resistance to the draft, succeeded in turning an erring government from its mistaken path. On the other hand, the right wing knows an entirely different Vietnam war. For conservatives, the war against communism was lost because squishy liberals lost their nerve. Conservatives remember only the excesses of the anti-war movement: the culture of drugs, the sexual freedom, the violence, and of course, the bombings.
American Pastoral is firmly of the right-hand file. Roth has performed a amazing piece of legerdemain. He has written about the period of Vietnam, but he has omitted (or suppressed) both the atrocities of the war and the organized, largely peaceful opposition to it. In American Pastoral, resistance is not political but personal. It's embodied in Swede's daughter Merry Levov, who is vacant, violent, angry and disgusting. By stripping the novel of its historical context and coloration, Roth reduces the opposition to the war to an oedipal conflict between a demon child and her well-meaning but ineffectual father.The novel lacks even the decent ambiguity that Roth might have created if he had given Levov other and perhaps more reasonable children. But it's a good guess that in a novel by Philip Roth, more children would have led not to a widening of focus or to a richer novel, but only to more tsouris.
It's a shame that so skillful an artist (and one who is not generally a right-winger) has written a novel that's only inches away from neocon propaganda.