Philip Roth is a writer of great comic gifts, but in American Pastoral, his twenty-second book, these gifts are unfortunately not much in evidence. Nostalgia and indignation alternate in setting the tone of this new novel. In the present case, Roth’s aim is to create an idyllic American life for Seymour Irving Levov, to embody in him the pastoral dream of the American Jew (to become a fully assimilated American), and then to strip him of his illusions and attainments by the most cruel and irrational of means.

Roth’s Levov is “the household Apollo” of the Newark Jews, a boy so blond and handsome that he is called “the Swede.” Since Jewish boys are “not athletic,” the Swede is, of course, a star athlete (in several high-school sports) and therefore the idol of every Jewish kid at Weequahic High. Like Bernard Malamud’s Roy Hobbs, the Swede is a “natural” at sports. But...


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