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Sunday, May 11, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Roth's Back, With More Complaints

Special To The Seattle Times

----------------------------------------------------------------- "AMERICAN PASTORAL."

"American Pastoral" by Philip Roth Houghton Mifflin, $26 -----------------------------------------------------------------

A familiar character from Philip Roth's fiction is back. Not his frequent alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman - though he, too, makes an appearance as both the narrator and ostensible creator of the main story in Roth's new novel, "American Pastoral."

No, this familiar character was first seen in "Goodbye, Columbus" as Ronald Patimkin, and later as Heshie in "Portnoy's Complaint." He is the Great Jewish Athlete of 1940s Weequahic High: tall, broad-shouldered and, in this case, a blond and blue-eyed symbol of assimilation. Because of Seymour Levov's looks, Newark's other Jews lovingly dub him "the Swede."

After a stint in the Marines, the Swede dutifully and successfully follows his father into the glove-making business. He marries out of his faith - his beautiful college sweetheart is Irish Catholic, as well as Miss New Jersey of 1949 - and he goes to live in the WASPish countryside of Old Rimrock, N.J., to raise a family. And that's where disaster strikes.

The usual tension in a Philip Roth story is between 1940s and '50s Jewish youths and their Depression-era parents, whose "uncertainties," he writes here, "were theirs and not ours." But the Swede is dutiful. He doesn't wish for the horny shikse of Alexander Portney's dreams, but for a big stone house with a tree in front where his daughter, Merry, can swing freely.

The Swede seeks the American dream but gives birth to the American nightmare: a stuttering daughter who, in the counterculture '60s, blows up their small-town postal station as a protest against the Vietnam War. It's as if Mel Brooks sired Robert Redford, who in turn sires Squeaky Fromme.

"American Pastoral" is structured along Old Testament lines. The first section, "Paradise Remembered," has as its focal point the 45th reunion of Weequahic High's class of 1950. Paradise, it seems, was just that: Weequahic, and America, in the late '40s. The constricting social mores that have been used to such comic effect in previous Roth novels are seen here through the soft-focus of nostalgia - whether Roth's or narrator Zuckerman's, we don't know.

The second section, "The Fall," turns to the riotous '60s and the novel becomes truly absorbing. Roth gets off great riffs on the self-immolation of Buddhist monks and the symbolism of Angela Davis' humongous Afro: "The hair is extraordinary," he writes. "She peers defiantly out of it like a porcupine. The hair says, `Do not approach if you don't like pain.' "

"Paradise Lost," the final section, is a horrific day in the life of the Swede in 1973. Daughter Merry resurfaces in a hilariously ironic incarnation, and the Swede visits bombed-out Newark - like Zuckerman and Mickey Sabbath in Roth novels before him.

Seeking comfort, he is instead chastised by his brother for his blind sense of responsibility - the mirror image of Zuckerman's brother chastising him for irresponsibility in "Zuckerman Unbound." Finally, at a barbecue, the Swede learns his wife is having an affair. One waits for the man, finally, to explode. But when it comes, the explosion is tiny and misdirected - and the reader feels almost cheated.

Such a Biblical structure begs the questions: "What is the original sin here? Why the Swede's fall? What did he do?" They are the questions the Swede keeps banging his head against throughout the novel, only to discover, according to Zuckerman, "the worst lesson that life can teach - that it makes no sense."

"American Pastoral" is vast in scope, and there are familiar moments of genius. But the tear-producing sense of humor - Roth's trademark - seems to have dried up: only once did I find myself laughing out loud. Roth also needs a better editor: Characters go on uninterestingly for pages; everyone is allowed his tirade. A shorter, funnier "Pastoral" could have become an instant classic.

Erik Lundegaard is a Seattle writer.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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