In American Pastoral, Philip Roth gets inside the life and mind of a Newark glove manufacturer, with unsettling and provocative effect, creating a far wider readership than a nonfiction book on the decline of manufacturing in New Jersey could achieve. Here is Roth’s hero, Swede Levov, railing unforgettably against the self-satisfied intellectuals who make assumptions about his work:
These deep thinkers were the only people he could not stand to be around for long, these people who’d never manufactured anything or seen anything manufactured, who didn’t know what things were made of or how a company worked, who, aside from a house or a car, had never sold anything and didn’t know how to sell anything, who’d never hired a worker, fired a worker, trained a worker, been fleeced by a worker — people who knew nothing of the intricacies or the risks of building a business or running a factory but who nonetheless imagined they knew everything worth knowing.
American Pastoral is the blistering story of an American family that makes good in three generations. But with the fourth generation, the worm turns with a vengeance, as it did to the utter incomprehension of so many well-meaning strivers in the 1960s:
For [Merry, Swede’s daughter], being an American was loathing America.… How could a child of his be so blind as to revile the “rotten system” that had given her family every opportunity to succeed? To revile her “capitalist” parents as though their wealth was anything other than the unstinting industry of three generations. The men of three generations, including even himself, slogging through the slime and stink of a tannery.… There wasn’t much difference, and she knew it, between hating America and hating them.
The Embodiment of Nothing
This private tragedy is mirrored by the decline of Newark, New Jersey, as an industrial center. “It’s the worst city in the world.… Used to be the city where they manufactured everything. Now it’s the car-theft capital of the world,” Swede tells Nathan Zuckerman, the author’s alter ego and narrator, who has made the mistake of thinking that Swede, an old classmate, is “a human platitude … the embodiment of nothing,” because he is, well, a good guy and a glove manufacturer.
The English satirist David Lodge has resurrected the term “Condition-of-England Novels” to describe books like Tono-Bungay in which the narrative is shaped by social and economic issues. American Pastoral, then, could properly be called a “Condition-of-the-United-States Novel,” as could Richard Powers’s Gain, in which two stories are juxtaposed, one relating the rise of the Clare Soap & Chemical Company from its humble origins as a chandler, the other about Laura Bodey, a real-estate agent in a Clare company town, who develops ovarian cancer, which might or might not have been caused by using Clare products or living near a Clare plant. An elegant writer of formidable intelligence, Powers creates from the two stories a novel of considerable impact. (Incidentally, the dull cover and blurb on the U.S. edition don’t begin to hint at the imaginative energy in Gain, a paradox for a book revolving on the kind of business that lives or dies by marketing.)
A vast conglomerate, Clare Soap & Chemical was founded by three brothers whose father, Jephthah Clare, was a merchant trader: “That family flocked to commerce like finches to morning. They clung to the watery edge of existence: ports, always ports. They thrived in tidal pools, half-sweet, half-brackish. They lived less in cities than on the sea routes between them.” The Clare family fortunes rise and fall, too, with tides pulled by war, taxation, and competition, for “no blooded aristocracy matched the economic meritocracy for harshness.”