Originally created 05/31/97

Humor, family and religion essential in `American Pastoral'



American Pastoral (Houghton Mifflin, $26) is vintage Philip Roth.

As always, Mr. Roth writes about the things he knows best - in this instance, New Jersey, with particular emphasis on Newark, and Jewishness.

Along the way, he also touches on the nearby city of Elizabeth, and offers insights about Catholicism. Despite Mr. Roth's skill in conveying local flavor, the appeal of this superbly crafted novel is universal.

The book is a poignant rendering of the life of a storied high school athlete, Seymour "Swede" Lovov, who, as a decent soul, deserves better than he gets from life. The successor to his father as head of Newark Maid, a prospering dress-glove factory, the Swede is as comfortable and skilled in the factory as he was on the playing field.

Idolized by everyone, he seems to have it all: a thriving business; the home of his childhood fantasies; a stunning yet unpretentious wife, Mary Dawn Dwyer (Miss New Jersey, 1949); and a bright, lively and loving little daughter, Merry. It's only when Merry becomes older, and a revolutionary in the bargain, that things begin to unravel for the Swede.

As in Mr. Roth's other works, the plot is only part of the pleasure for the reader. Mr. Roth handcrafts virtually every sentence, making the going tough for speed-readers. His writing must be savored, word by word.

Another of Mr. Roth's traits, a story within a story, is in evidence as Nathan Zuckerman, a recurring character from previous novels, is the teller-of-the-tale of the Swede. And Mr. Roth again displays his ability to move around in time - whether by days, years or decades - skillfully and without inconveniencing the reader.

Long, seeming endless passages abound. But rather than reading through them, the reader is more likely to enjoy them a second time. One would expect a 14-page tutorial about the glove-manufacturing process to be less than fascinating. Not so with Mr. Roth.

And, of course, the book is not without humor, including the dialogue, at a high school reunion, between Zuckerman and a small, gray-haired woman in a brown pantsuit who now looks like Spencer Tracy. Almost 50 years ago, she was his nubile 14-year-old hayride date. With nostalgia, they lament a lost and forever-irretrievable opportunity in the hay.

Reading American Pastoral is an exhilarating experience, one that probably will make the next book you choose suffer by comparison.