In 1997, Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral. I’ve gone to the movies last night to see how the book I loved took shape and form based on a script by John Romano.
I knew the main character was based on a real person – with some embellishments. And what a character Roth created! The Swede seemed to have it all! He was a star high school athlete (really, a hero and a legend in his hometown), he married a beauty queen (a former Miss New Jersey), he took over his father’s thriving business (manufacturing high-end ladies’ gloves), he had a house with land (in a very… pastoral setting), he and his wife had a loving, beautiful daughter to care for.
What could go wrong? All of it. At the 45th high school reunion of Swede’s older brother, Jerry, tells Swede’s story to an old classmate, a journalist who was overseas during the 1960s.
Seymour “Swede” Levov was the pride of the Jewish-American community in Newark (which nicknamed him “Swede” because of his Nordic good looks), but Swede’s life became difficult after high school – and went downhill from there. Swede had to struggle to get his very traditional father to accept the Catholicism of his wife, Dawn.
He struggled to keep his business viable in the face of declining customer demand (and being at the epicenter of the 1967 Newark race riots), and he struggled mightily with his rebellious daughter, Merry. Merry dealt with a bad stutter, which clearly affected her confidence and self-esteem (besides the “problem” of having such a beautiful mother, as pointed out by Merry’s psychologist, played by Molly Parker). But Merry’s problems (and her parents’ problems with Merry) had just begun.
As she grew up, Merry became disillusioned with the world which she saw on TV (very much like May or June (can’t remember which one of the sisters) from “The secret life of bees” who would work on her wall whenever something bad happened on TV).
“When did our daughter become so stupid?” Dawn asks at one point
and I have to agree with her. The child had been emotionally traumatized by what she saw on TV and in the news and started hanging out with the wrong type of people. This is usually where most parents dread the teenage years and for good reason. The cute child that just the other day was sitting on your knee is now talking about going to New York and attending a peace rally.
The daughter strongly sympathized with the Civil Rights Movement (especially its more radical elements) and the Vietnam anti-war movement (especially its more radical elements as well). She went from spewing hatred at President Johnson’s image on the family’s TV set to regularly taking the train into New York to commiserate with like-minded radicals. She rudely rebelled against all authority figures (including her own loving parents) and started talking openly about the need for a revolution in the U.S.
One day, a local post office exploded, killing one man, and Merry disappeared.
Was it her who did it? Her father did tell her “to bring the war back home”, but I think what he had in mind was a peaceful protest holding a banner talking about the effects of war, not an attack on a post-office which ended up with one dead person, someone’s husband, someone’s father.
Her anguished parents insisted that Merry couldn’t have done such a thing unless she was brainwashed and forced by others. Now I understand that you can tend to be blind to your child’s flaws and love them no matter what, but sometimes you need a wake-up call as to what you have in your house.
Over time, the movie’s characters display very different reactions to the post office bombing. The police and FBI are convinced that Merry did it and they follow the few leads that they have trying to find her. Dawn doesn’t want to believe that her daughter committed this horrible act, but gradually accepts it, leading her to a nervous breakdown. Jerry tries to get his brother to deal with the probability that Merry is guilty. Swede, however, never gives up on his daughter. He’ll never believe in Merry’s guilt unless he hears a confession from her own lips. Either way, all he wants to do is bring his daughter home and he never stops looking for her. The unexpected appearance of a mysterious young woman named Rita Cohen, who says she knows Merry, ends with Swede more desperate and frustrated than ever – and putting increased stress on his relationship with Dawn. Regardless, Swede never ever quits.
The good, the bad and the unbelievable.
The shocking parts of the movie were a few very serialized scenes. In one, Merry is 10-11, just entering puberty, and she asks her dad to kiss her. While he obliges like a dutiful father, she replies “No, no, kiss me like you kiss mother”. I was shocked. In the silence that followed I was thinking – could this be one of those dirty pedophile movies? Or be like “White Oleander” where the daughter seduces the step father because he wanted his attention? Thankfully, Sweede explodes in anger at her, shutting her up.
Now – why did Merry do this? Was she trying to be more like her mother? Was it truly a battle for affection between daughter and mother? Was she trying to be more adult like most children do?
The second thing that got me shocked (I do shock quite easily) was when Rita (the young girl that tells the dad where her daughter is) asks him to meet her at a hotel with $10,000 and a promise to divulge her location. When he gets there, suitcase in hand, he gets greeted by Rita wearing a schoolgirl uniform and no underwear and who asks him to fuck her if he wants to know the location of his daughter. This is clearly an attack on his position of a dutiful father, dutiful husband, against the institution of family, all designed to throw him off his perceived high horse. When she touches herself intimately and then tells him that it smells like his daughter, I nearly puked…
Did she know his daughter that well, did she have sex with her? Or was she reliving a sexual fantasy confessed by Merry at one point in their lives?
I don’t understand how Sweede kept his composure this long. If it were me, I would have beaten the shit out of that woman to try to find out where my kid was and I would have probably slapped her and dragged her to the police when she spread her legs 🙂 Same with the child. Merry definitely needed some discipline administered when the hate came out in sparks and all the billboards and posters in the room would at least been a discussion subject of one sort. And don’t let me get started with the Wife. Dawn could have gone with a spanking but she was losing her marbles so I don’t know if it would count as abuse or not. He should have gotten a divorce when he caught her kissing the neighbor.
“American Pastoral” is a unique combination of enlightening, frustrating, inspiring and depressing. I gained a greater understanding of what was going on during the Vietnam Era, how certain social issues intertwined and how all of this affected ordinary people. I was frustrated by the daughter’s behavior – and by the way the movie glossed over any real explanation for her unlikely and extreme radicalization. I was inspired by Swede’s determination and unconditional love for his daughter… but it was depressing to see what those admirable qualities did to his previously promising life.
The story’s somewhat shaky, but interesting, the direction of McGregor (directing his first feature) is mostly solid, the characters are compelling and this impressive ensemble of actors are all at the top of their games. This movie won’t leave you feeling very pastoral, but it will teach you more about America – and the power of love.