Paradise Lost

American Pastoral

by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 423 pp., $26.00

American Pastoral is Philip Roth’s twentieth work of fiction—an accretion of creative energy, a yearly, or almost, place at the starting line of a marathon. But his is a one-man sprint with the signatures, the gestures, the deep breathing, and the repetitiveness, sometimes, of an obsessive talent. Roth has his themes, spurs to his virtuoso variations and star turns in triple time. His themes are Jews in the world, especially in Israel, Jews in the family, Jews in Newark (New Jersey); fame, vivid enough to occasion impostors (Operation Shylock); literature, since the narrators, or, if you like, the performers are writers, actually one writer, Philip Roth, winking under whatever dark-glasses alias. And sex, anywhere in every manner, a penitential workout on the page with no thought of backaches, chafings, or phallic fatigue. Indeed the novels are prickled like a sea urchin with the spines and fuzz of many indecencies.

In American Pastoral we are, on the first page, once more in Newark; and on page sixteen a question is posed to which the answer is, yes, “I’m Zuckerman the author.” Nathan Zuckerman is the author of Carnovsky (Zuckerman Unbound), an alternative title like those sometimes used in foreign transla-tions. In English, the novel is, of course, Portnoy’s Complaint, which provoked among many other responses an eruption of scandal; and the author of the book that brought about a fame and a “recognition factor” equal to that of Mick Jagger is Philip Roth. Or so it is in Zuckerman Unbound, where even a young funeral director, attending the remains of a Prince Seratelli, pauses to ask for the author’s autograph—all part of this wild, very engaging minstrel show in which the writing of a book, Portnoy or Carnovsky, not just any book, may serve as the lively plot for a subsequent book. Of course, we cannot attach Zuckerman or David Kepesh or Peter Tarnopol or Alexander Portnoy to Philip Roth like a fingernail. Not always.

However, if he follows Zuckerman to The Anatomy Lesson, the reader will gain or lose a shiver of interest if he knows that the late critic Irving Howe published in the magazine Commentary some forthright reservations about Roth’s work and that Howe is the “source” of Milton Appel in a rebuttal by Zuckerman or Roth. Howe had written, among other thoughts, some favorable, that “What seems really to be bothering Portnoy is a wish to sever his sexuality from his moral sensibilities, to cut it away from his self as historical creature. It’s as if he really supposed the super-ego, or post coitum triste, were a Jewish invention.”

Zuckerman or Roth cries out some years later in The Anatomy Lesson: “Milton Appel had unleashed an attack upon Zuckerman’s career that made Macduff’s assault upon Macbeth look almost lackadaisical. Zuckerman should have been so lucky as to come away with decapitation. A head wasn’t enough for Appel; he tore you limb from limb.” If he is …

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