To show a man has nothing, give him everything men want.
That formula, it seems, had been in my thoughts for as long as I’ve been writer, but I’m uncertain where it came from. It doesn’t feel like something I created myself. Perhaps one of my writing professors said it, or I read it in a book of writing or literary criticism, or saw it in a movie or a documentary. We see the formula applied in such classics as The Great Gatsby, where Jay Gatsby lives the Playboy lifestyle of large mansions, wild parties, exotic cars, speeds boats, and (we presume) willing women. If he doesn’t take advantage of the women—and there’s no hint in the novel that he does—it’s no fault of their willingness, because the women at his parties are clearly infatuated with him. We also see the formula applied in such movies as Scarface, where Al Pacino’s Tony Montana rises to the top of the underworld only to lose himself to his tragic flaws. And we see the formula applied in television series like Netflix’s House of Cards, where Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, rises to the height of political power only to have to defend that power from the consequences of how he obtained it. It’s a simple formula, but dynamic and versatile, and it plays well in America fiction, where ambition, wealth, and upward mobility are important themes.
It is also the formula Philip Roth employed in American Pastoral (1997). Seymour “The Swede” Levov is a man blessed with everything men want—a beautiful wife, a remarkable daughter, and a successful career as a owner of the glove manufacturing company. In high school, he had been a star athlete. His tall, blond-haired good looks inspired his nick name, The Swede. He enlisted in the Marines at the end of World War II, but the war ended while he was in boot camp. He spent the rest of his military career working as recreation director on Parris Island. After his discharge, he returned to New Jersey and headed to college, where he again became a star athlete. He also courted and married a former Miss New Jersey, Dawn. After college, he took over his family glove company and moved to the suburbs. They had a daughter, Merry, who struggled with stuttering and weight. She also struggled with the politics of the Vietnam War. This idyllic life came to an explosive end, literally, when Merry, in protest of the war, planted a bomb that destroyed the local post office and killed an innocent bystander.
But who gives a shit about the emergency room of a community hospital out in the sticks? Who gives a shit about a rural general store whose owner has been running it since 1921? We’re talking about humanity! When has there ever been progress for humanity without a few small mishaps or mistakes? The people are angry and they have spoken! Violence will be met by violence, regardless of consequences, until the people are liberated! Fascist America down one post office, facility completely destroyed.
The physical conflict of American Pastoral concerns The Swede’s struggle to reunite with Merry after her criminal act. Since she’s in hiding, he must rely on the mysterious go-between, Rita Cohen, who acts as both messenger and gatekeeper to Merry. The emotional conflict deals with him coming to terms with Merry’s crime and disappearance. But the real conflict in American Pastoral is thematic. It is the conflict of America as we want it to be versus the America as it really is. It is the conflict of America as she became after World War II—the greatest superpower, the free world beacon of hope and promise, the world’s most potent producer—but corrupted by the Vietnam War, racial inequality, Watergate, and changing economics. Though American Pastoral has both intriguing plot and fascinating characters, this theme is the best reason to read it. It is an exploration of America as it existed during the last half of the 20th Century. In a very real sense, the changing social-economic condition of America is the true antagonist of the novel.
We want to root for The Swede. He’s a likable guy. He’s what we value in America—good looking, wealthy, personable, and stable. He has everything men want. He has nothing.