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The Folly of Assimilation | RICHARD EDER

AMERICAN PASTORAL.\o7 By Philip Roth\f7 .\o7 Houghton Mifflin: 424 pp., $26\f7

May 04, 1997|RICHARD EDER

Those two dray horses of American fiction, one dapple and one bay, one Protestant and one Jewish, are still plodding along in odd and paradoxical tandem: the dappled John Updike a step or two before the darker Philip Roth.

A year ago, Updike brought out his American saga, "In the Beauty of the Lilies." It was evocative and somber. Now Roth comes with his counterpart saga, sardonically entitled "American Pastoral." It is somber and raging.

Updike killed off his longtime protagonist and story-bearer, Rabbit Angstrom, several years ago, not requiring him for "Lilies." Nathan Zuckerman is required for "American Pastoral." Impotent and incontinent after a prostate operation and 70 years old, he has lost some of his obsessions, notably sex, but not his principal one: rage.

Relinquishment is part of Updike's message. Although Roth has used other voices besides Zuckerman's (Sabbath, the fearsome ejaculator in "Sabbath's Theater"), for all of his protagonists, relinquishing is tantamount to annihilation.

Some have seen Zuckerman as an alter-ego for Roth, but it is more accurate and useful to see him as a glove-puppet. Contrivance is evident in a puppet show, but when it is as brilliant as Roth's, the show is its own world. Whoever Roth may be, Zuckerman, insatiable in argument and judgment--I prevail therefore I am--is one of the memorable figures in contemporary fiction, though perhaps he has been memorable too often and too long.

In "Pastoral," Zuckerman tugs on a glove-puppet of his own. Unlike Roth's glove (Zuckerman himself), his cannot withstand the gesticulatory passion of the hand that wields it. It keeps ripping. In fact, Zuckerman's puppet--a well-meaning, idealistic, assimilated Jew named Seymour Levov--is mounted precisely for the purpose of being ripped.

Swede, as Seymour is nicknamed, is the son of Lou Levov, a Newark, N.J., glove manufacturer who started out with piecework until World War II military orders made him a millionaire. In contrast to Lou, an old-fashioned and wittily chauvinist Jewish liberal, Swede seeks to melt into the American pot.

Fate makes it almost inevitable. Not only was Swede a high school sports legend back in the '40s when such a thing was a rarity among the sons of Jewish families, but he is blond and blue-eyed. He had "the steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask," Zuckerman writes.

It is, of course, characteristic of Roth's narrators to deal in stereotypes that, if reversed ("thick-lipped, expressive Semitic mask"), would be intolerable. The shock effect is intended to trouble--a sharp defensive retort to times when the aforesaid reversal would have been no reversal but simply the way many people talked. By now, it has aged beyond troubling to wearying, from defense to offense.

Zuckerman's account of Swede begins as a memory of the older schoolmate whom he hero-worshiped. When both men are in their 60s, and Zuckerman has become a celebrated writer, Swede diffidently requests a meeting. There is a hint at some deep trouble. Trouble is oxygen to Zuckerman, but Swede turns out to be bland, upbeat and utterly unrevealing.

There are a few facts. He took over and expanded the glove business, married an Irish American Catholic, moved to an expensive WASP suburb, divorced, remarried and had three sons. Oxygen denied, Zuckerman puts it all aside until 10 years after the meeting. Then, at a reunion, Swede's vitriolic younger brother reveals the darkness beneath the bland prosperity.

Swede and Dawn, his first wife, had a daughter, Merry, who turned away from her protected and cherishing childhood. She became a rebellious adolescent, a Vietnam War activist and eventually an underground terrorist whose bombs killed four people.

Out of this, Zuckerman finds his material. Never lacking in either artistic or personal arrogance, he appropriates Swede for an incandescent fiction. Its object is to argue the self-defeating folly of trying to assimilate Jewishness into the American mainstream.

The result is fascinating and deliberately wrongheaded: a Zuckerman first draft rent by contradiction and alternative versions. Inspired and obnoxious by turns, it overprints its wavering and uncertain portrait of Swede with a glittering and tumultuous portrait of his creator. The hands are Esau's but, as was remarked of the artistry of an earlier, biblical Zuckerman, "the voice is Jacob's."

Zuckerman's Swede is both a naive, well-meaning idealist and the scourging interior voice that revenges itself on idealism. He marries Dawn Dwyer because she is lovable, Irish Catholic and Miss New Jersey in the Miss America pageant. Swede's grandfather immigrated to America; he will complete this move by immigrating to inside-America on this three-lane royal highway (Roth's exuberant irony never confines itself to a single lane).

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