Most authors only have one novel in them, and it’s usually their first. The mark of a real “giant” is not so much his ability to tell many different stories, or even a particularly important story, but to tell whatever his one story is so well that it compels reading multiple times. Faulkner epitomizes this. He basically wrote the same novel over and over again, and it wasn’t about a whole heck of a lot to begin with, but he did it so incredibly well, with such focus and vividness, that he managed to repeat the trick a dozen times, and, most amazingly, the story got better and better in the re-telling, until The Sound and the Fury emerged, and there was nowhere else to go but sideways. Legion are the lesser writers who’ve failed in the same attempt—or tried futilely to do better: Ken Kesey offered a brilliant “breakout” novel in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and then produced nothing else except Sometimes a Great Notion, which fell embarrassingly short of the “original.” Ralph Ellison churned out Invisible Man and then unsuccessfully fought writer’s block the rest of his life.
Philip Roth has been failing for the last half-century to recapture the magic of Goodbye, Columbus. I can imagine his frustration: Goodbye, Columbus isn’t even a novel, so if that is to be his defining work, how can he avoid being considered second-rate? (The Great Gatsby isn’t a novel either, but that’s never stopped anyone from lauding Fitzgerald as one of the century’s greatest writers.) But Goodbye, Columbus is one of the greatest works of fiction to come out of the Fifties, and one of the tidiest, most lyrical, urgent, and vivid works of fiction of the last half-century at least. Reading Roth’s more recent works, one senses that he’s forgotten—or is resisting—what made Goodbye, Columbus great.
The only other Roth I’ve read besides Goodbye, Columbus is The Breast, which is nearly as embarrassing as the title suggests. People are always pushing this or that Roth in my direction, insisting “this one’s good” (as if they share, on some level, my skepticism). I’d certainly like to believe them; I’m in Roth’s corner. But my esteem has to be earned, and American Pastoral falls short, mainly because Roth wastes so much time and energy getting in the way of his own story. The characters are compelling, for the most part, even if they do bear an awkward similarity to those in his other novels. But the story is told in a cyclical, quasi-stream-of-consciousness fashion that is much more irritating and bloated than innovative or insight-giving (Faulker did this better almost 100 years ago). Imagery that doesn’t directly connect with the narrative comes so fast and furious that one wonders if Roth has been reading too much Whitman. And one realizes suddenly why epic poetry was invented—to prevent, through the discipline of meter, just such a logjam of tangents, irrelevancies, and stylistic grandstanding. It doesn’t help that much of this imagery constitutes rather trite, bootless sentimentalizing over the American dream—or “American pastoral.” Actually, the cyclical hyper-imagery doesn’t begin until about 100 pages in, at which point the first-person narrator, himself an awkward contrivance, abruptly disappears.
I nearly quit on American Pastoral after fifty pages—had I not been away from home, with few alternative forms of entertainment, I would have. I guess I’m glad I persisted: the novel ended better than it began. But the whole was far less than the sum of a few really good parts. I chose American Pastoral in part because it won a Pulitzer, and boasts a litany of gushing reviews. I can only assume this prize was awarded as a kind of lifetime achievement award for Roth, because American Pastoral, in and of itself, is so far from Pulitzer material that it makes a mockery of the prize. The reviews seem to have been written by people who either didn’t read the book or have forgotten how a real novel works.
I’ll give Roth another chance, because even in such a sloppy work as American Pastoral, his gifts for colloquial dialogue, lyrical description, and probing characterization are undeniable. I’m not aware of anyone else even attempting to capture the Jewish vernacular, or New Jersey provincialism, the way Roth does, apart from whatever else he may or may not manage. But much as I’d like to be convinced otherwise, I’m forced to stick with my original verdict: Roth has written a lot of mediocre novels and one outstanding novella. Read Goodbye, Columbus, and forget the rest.