Roth’s American Pastoral

In Philip Roth’s wrenching novel American Pastoral, legendary athlete and successful businessman Swede Levov learns his daughter has turned into a fanatic. Levov finally finds his beloved Merry living in a rat hole, having joined a weird sect, being accused of bombing a post office. He tries to make sense of it all, turning over events of her childhood in his head.

“If you have contact with your child steadily over time, then the stuff that is off – the mistakes in judgement that are made on both sides – is somehow, through that steady, patient contact, made better and better, until at last, inch by inch, day by day and inch by inch, there is remediation, there are the ordinary satisfactions of parental patience rewarded, of things working out… But this. Where was the remediation for this?”

Roth uses the repetition of “inch by inch” to communicate just how patient parents must be for childhood to work out. This is a painful scene in which Roth spares no detail, describing the stench of Merry herself, the rags she wears, and her squalid room. In this long chapter, the father tries to make sense of the baby in the bassinet and the wild animal she has become — but never really does. Sad as this aspect was, I was propelled through the book by the force of Roth’s writing and remember American Pastoral years after reading it. Have you?

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