Saturday, December 3, 2016

American Pastoral: The Assimilation Dream

Ewan McGregor and Jennifer Connelly in American Pastoral

The house I grew up in was in a gracious suburb of Montreal that had been restricted by a “gentleman’s agreement” – that is, no houses were sold to Jews – until, in the early fifties, it expanded northward and the old rules were no longer imposed on the new properties. Still, when my parents bought our house we were the first Jews on the street, and though most of our neighbors were warm and welcoming (a Chinese family was already ensconced two doors down), there was one family at the end of the block that refused to acknowledge us. I was only three or four when my father bought the first television set on the street, so I only learned from him years later about the day these anti-Semites showed up at our door, like all of our other neighbors, to get a peek at this brand-new marvel. “What did you do?” I asked my dad, but of course I knew him well enough to anticipate his answer: “I invited them in.” My father, a man of unassailable integrity, was also an accommodating one; he believed in people getting along, and he made his philosophy work – he counted non-Jews as well as Jews among his friends all his life.

I thought of my father when I read Philip Roth’s great 1997 novel American Pastoral – now a movie, directed by and starring Ewan McGregor – which offers, as one of its two great themes, the idea of assimilation as the essential dream of Jewish Americans and then dismantles it. Its protagonist is Seymour “Swede” Levov, a Jewish kid from Newark who, through a combination of uncanny athletic gifts (in high school he’s a football, basketball and baseball star) and golden-boy Wasp looks, gets to live the charmed life denied to most Jews in the forties and fifties. Roth’s narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, who pals around with Swede’s kid brother Jerry and, like all the other Newark youngsters, basks in Seymour’s reflected glory, refers to him as “our very own Swede, a boy as close to a goy as we were going to get” whose “steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask” permitted him to wear his Jewishness lightly. “[T]hrough the Swede,” Nathan explains, “the neighborhood entered into a fantasy about itself and about the world . . . our families could forget the way things actually work . . .” (They could also forget about the war; this part of the story takes place in the early forties.) The Swede takes over his father’s glove business, Newark Maid, but he successfully defies his father’s insular mentality and marries a Gentile, Dawn Dwyer, Miss New Jersey of 1949, and moves out to the country – Old Rimrock, N.J., bona fide Wasp territory. (Swede Levov anticipates another indelible Roth creation, Coleman Silk in The Human Stain, a black man so light-skinned he can pass for white.) Nathan, crossing paths with him again in the mid-nineties, assumes that his life has been “most simple and most ordinary and therefore just great, right in the American grain.” But then he runs into Jerry shortly after at their forty-fifth high school reunion and finds out that the Swede, recently and unexpectedly dead, lived for three decades under the cloud of a tragedy: his daughter Merry, radicalized as a teenager during the Vietnam War, had bombed the Old Rimrock post office and gone underground.

The other theme of the novel, of course, is the mysterious transformation of the sixties radical, glimpsed from the point of view of their dumbstruck parents. American Pastoral tells this iconic story of the sixties with a depth of wonderment and an unresolvable complexity beyond anything that the other treatments of it – in literature, drama and film – have brought to it; Roth turns it into a tragedy of Sophoclean dimensions. “I don’t know what’s happened,” bewildered Dawn moans to the Swede after Merry, straight-A student and obedient daughter, becomes, virtually overnight, an enraged, mocking, rebellious teenager who walks around spouting revolutionary slogans through a debilitating stutter and accusing her parents of bourgeois complacency that virtually equates them, anti-war liberals though they are, with the warmongers she despises. “ ‘Who is she? Where did she come from? I cannot control her. I cannot recognize her. . .’ ” Once she takes on the mantle of “the Rimrock bomber,” Roth characterizes Merry as
the fourth American generation daughter, a daughter on the run who was to have been the perfected image of himself as he had been the perfected image of his father, and his father the perfected image of his father’s father . . . the angry, rebarbative spitting-out daughter with no interest whatever in being the next successful Levov, flushing him out of hiding as if he were a fugitive – initiating the Swede into the displacement of another America entirely, the daughter and the decade blasting to smithereens his particular form of utopian thinking, the plague America infiltrating the Swede’s castle and therefore infecting everyone. The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral – into the indigenous American berserk.
The book’s particular genius is the way in which it brings together these two themes. Roth writes:
[Seymour’s] father, after foolishly watching a TV news special about the police hunt for the underground Weathermen, among them Mark Rudd and Katherine Boudin and Jane Alpert – all in their twenties, Jewish, middle class, college-educated, violent in behalf of the antiwar cause, committed to revolutionary change and determined to overturn the United States government – went around saying, “I remember when Jewish kids were home doing their homework. What happened? What the hell happened to our smart Jewish kids? . . .” They are crazy. Something is driving them crazy. Something has set them against everything. Something is leading them into disaster. These are not the smart Jewish children intent on getting ahead by doing what they are told better than anyone else does. They only feel at home doing better than anyone else as they are not told.
Roth links Merry’s path, the path of these bizarrely diverted smart middle-class Jewish kids, to the Jewish dream of assimilation; in his view, what they are instinctually rebelling against, tearing apart is the idea of Wasp gentility that their parents, responding to generations of anti-Semitism, have sought to embrace. Swede builds a lifestyle for his family based on the principle that “[t]his is a new generation and there is no need for that resentment stuff from anybody, them or us. And the upper class is nothing to be frightened of either. You know what you’re going to find once you know them? That they are just other people who want to get along.” By contrast, Roth offers, as the Swede’s opposite number, his brother Jerry, an eruptive misanthrope. When Seymour finally locates Merry, in 1973, working quietly at a Newark cat and dog hospital, leading the radically gentle life of a Jain – a member of an eastern religious cult who eats little, wears a veil to avoid disturbing the microscopic insects of the air and refuses to wash to avoid disturbing the water – she refuses his attempts to bring her home. Baffled about what to do, he calls Jerry for advice, and Jerry orders him to take her back against her will. When the Swede backs away from the use of force against his daughter, his brother explodes at him:
“What you are is you’re always trying to smooth everything over. What you are is always trying to be moderate. What you are is never telling the truth if you think it’s going to hurt somebody’s feelings. What you are is you’re always compromising. What you are is always complacent. What you are is always trying to find the bright side of things. The one with the manners. The one who abides everything patiently. The one with the ultimate decorum. The boy who never breaks the code . . . Decorum. Decorum is what you spit in the face of. Well, your daughter spit in it for you, didn’t she? Four people [she killed]? Quite a critique she has made of decorum.”
Jerry is Roth’s device for countering the Swede’s assimilation dream; he’s the Jew who refuses to buy it. “ ‘Out there playing at being Wasps, a little Mick girl from the Elizabeth docks and a Jewboy from Weequaic High,” he comments with disdain. “ ‘The cows . . . Colonial old America. And you thought all that façade was going to come without cost. Genteel and innocent. But that costs, too, Seymour. I would have thrown a bomb. I would become a Jain and live in Newark. That Wasp bullshit!”

Roth’s novel, the first in an extraordinary trilogy that continues with I Married a Communist and The Human Stain, is a masterpiece; returning to it for the third time, I liked it, I think, even more than I had when I first encountered it nearly twenty years ago. (Much as I loved it then, it didn’t move me quite as much as I Married a Communist, set during the McCarthy era, which contains perhaps the most affecting portrait of a great teacher in any novel I know.) But the book isn’t perfect. The character of Rita Cohen, the revolutionary who approaches Seymour during the period of Merry’s absence, ostensibly as an emissary from his daughter, accuses him of the crime of American capitalism, attempts to seduce him and extorts five thousand dollars from him, is an audacious creation that doesn’t work; while Roth succeeds brilliantly in using Jerry as a voice for a vision diametrically opposed to the Swede’s, Rita’s taunts never transcend their didactic/emblematic purpose. And once he brings her into the novel, Roth doesn’t know how to make her fit the narrative: when Seymour finds Merry again, she claims to have no idea who Rita is, and Roth never solves the mystery of who the hell she really is. The book doesn’t explain what happens to Merry, either, killing her off, if not precisely in a parenthesis like Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, off-handedly in an allusion by Jerry to Nathan Zuckerman. (We don’t have to be told exactly what the middle-aged Mrs. Ramsay dies of, but we do ache to find out Merry’s fate.) And he doesn’t have an ending – the finale is an anti-climax.

In the movie version, written by John Romano, Merry doesn’t die offscreen; she survives and shows up at her dad’s funeral, walking silently past the other mourners, including her mother (Jennifer Connelly), to shovel dirt on his grave. I think it’s a smart solution to a dramatic problem, but otherwise the screenplay is utterly stillborn; Romano doesn’t dramatize anything else. He’s faithful to the novel – slavishly faithful: the movie is like undigested chunks of Roth’s prose. And McGregor, behind the camera for the first time, hasn’t figured out how to be a director – how to use the camera and editing to shape sequences dramatically – so the scenes just sit on the screen, immobile. (He manages to stir up a little movement during the section where Seymour and his African American office manager, played by Uzo Aduba, occupy Newark Maid overnight during the Newark riots.)

Ewan McGregor and Dakota Fanning.

The movie makes such a botch of the assimilation narrative that it would have been far better if Romano and McGregor hadn’t tried to include it at all – if it had stuck to the story of the teenager radicalized into violence and her relationship with her successful middle-class father. Much of the problem is in the casting – not of Peter Riegert as the Swede’s bombastic, chatty father Lou (he’s inadequate but at least he’s in the ballpark), but certainly of McGregor himself. McGregor is a terrific actor: he gave one of the best performances of the year as the tennis-playing professor who reaches beyond himself to act heroically in Susanna White’s movie of John Le Carré’s novel Our Kind of Traitor, though both McGregor’s work and the film itself went virtually unnoticed when it came out last summer. (And Hossein Amini’s adaptation showed what a real screenwriter does when he wants to turn a book into a movie: the film actually improved on the source material.) But the Swede is way, way out of McGregor’s range – not because he doesn’t look Jewish, since neither does the Swede, but because he has no idea how to act Jewish. He gives it the old college try, and I don’t think his vocal work is bad, but there’s no trace in his portrayal of the tension between the Newark-born Jew and the façade of Wasp normality that his looks and his legendary performances on the field and the court allow him to assume. You’d need a master actor to pull this off, and, I suspect, an American – someone like Paul Newman in his prime, around the time he was starring in movies like Absence of Malice and Fort Apache, The Bronx and redefining what it meant to be a Method movie star. The only contemporary actor who comes to mind who might have had a chance at playing the Swede is Matt Damon. It’s a measure of just how off-track the movie is that, in the role of Nathan Zuckerman, a Jew who looks like a Jew, we have David Strathairn, and as Jerry, the conventionally handsome English actor Rupert Evans; the second makes zero impression, while the first gives the impression of having stepped onto the wrong film set.

Jennifer Connelly, on the other hand, isn’t miscast, just painfully misdirected. She’s a fantastic actress, often in roles that slip under the radar, like the drug addict in the 2014 Shelter. (She has an amazing scene in that picture where her character, a middle-class woman with a family who has abandoned them, out of shame, to live on the streets, watches that paean to middle-class respectability, the 1945 Noël Coward-David Lean Brief Encounter, and we can see her being drawn into the movie and pushed out of it at the same time.) But Connelly is such an unrestrained risk-taker that in certain roles she needs a director to protect her, and this is one of them. McGregor lets her go over the top, and he’s such a novice that he has no idea how to vary what she does on camera. Besides the return of Merry in the last scene, Romano’s other invention is a dreadful scene where Dawn, who becomes seriously depressed after her daughter vanishes, unravels, naked, in the front office of Newark Maid. As the child Merry, Hannah Nordberg isn’t bad at all, and one scene, where she and the Swede go camping together, is lovely. Dakota Fanning plays Merry as a teenager (and beyond), and if there’s a reason to see American Pastoral she’s it: she gives the character’s stuttering ejaculations some authentic venom, and her later scenes a hushed sorrowfulness.

Philip Roth reading from American Pastoral (courtesy of PBS).

Philip Roth is America’s greatest living writer, but except for Barry Levinson’s The Humbling the movies made from them have been pretty awful. (Elegy, from his book The Dying Animal, was a noble try.) Indignation, also released this year, is terrible, but all the fault can’t be laid at the feet of the writer-director, James Schamus; it’s not a very good book to start with. There had been talk about filming American Pastoral for years, but I wish it had remained dormant until someone else came along, since the version we’ve got now is the only one we’re going to get. And because it’s much more fun to write about the novel, let me close by quoting a particularly beautiful passage where Nathan consumes the souvenir he and his classmates are handed as they leave the reunion, a box of rugelach, the beloved Jewish pastry of his childhood:
Within five minutes of leaving the reunion, I’d undone the double wrapping and eaten all six rugelach, each a snail of sugar-dusted pastry dough, the cinnamon-lined chambers microscopically studded with midget raisins and chopped walnuts. . . . [R]apidly devouring mouthful after mouthful of those crumbs whose floury richness – blended of butter and sour cream and vanilla and cream cheese and egg yolk and sugar . . . greedily I ate, gluttonously, refusing to curtail for a moment this wolfish intake of saturated fat . . .
The rugelach, as Nathan states explicitly, is his Proustian madeleine, conjuring up the sweetest taste of his youth. When I reread the book, this scene put me in mind of two others, both from movies I love. In Paul Mazursky’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976) the hero, Larry Lapinsky (Lenny Baker), who is Mazursky’s version of his early-twenties, mid-1950s self, bids farewell to his possessive, melodramatizing Jewish mother (Shelley Winters) before flying to Hollywood to appear in his first movie. Before he leaves she presses some strudel on him, and though, typically, he balks at her overpowering maternal pushiness, he stops in the Brownsville street to eat the pastry appreciatively, looking around him at the neighborhood that has shaped him. In quite a different vein, in Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994), Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), the Harvard Law School graduate employed by the Senate Oversight Committee who uncovers the 21 quiz-show scandal of the mid-fifties, visits Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) in his Bronx apartment to interview him about his charges that the show is rigged to favor Gentiles over Jews like him. Stempel offers Dick rugelach, taking care, in his pedantic way, to explain what it is, but Goodwin interrupts him impatiently, “I’m familiar with rugelach.” After a stunned pause, Herbie asks, “How’d a guy like you ever get into Harvard?” The unspoken answer is that, like the Swede, Goodwin looked sufficiently un-ethnic to pass.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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