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Studying 'American Pastoral' to Understand 'The Road'

By Theodore J. Gioia, Contributing Writer

Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” is one of the few recent novels that has achieved commercial as well as critical success. Given McCarthy’s elegant minimalist style and simple, episodic plot, I wondered how this post-apocalyptic novel was capable of capturing the national imagination. It was only after attempting to read Philip Roth’s 1997 novel “American Pastoral,” however, that the merits of “The Road” became apparent. One can learn important things from a novel without even finishing it.

Though I only read the first section of Roth’s novel, I was immediately overwhelmed by its heavy fog of exhausted and demoralized irony. “American Pastoral” is replete with characters who lack consequential or connected outer lives, and who also lead hollow and phlegmatic inner lives. These characters are trapped in listless, “nether lives,” in which neither their exterior jobs nor their interior fantasies and dreams inspire them.

The novel is narrated by Roth’s authorial alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who examines his high school’s star athlete—a man nicknamed “the Swede” (although he, like the narrator, is Jewish). On the very first page Roth explains that the Swede gave the neighborhood the chance to “enter into a fantasy about itself and about the world.” Zuckerman explains, “Our families could forget the way things actually work and make an athletic performance the repository of all their hopes.” Essentially, the community nourishes their impoverished inner lives with the successful outer life of the Swede.

In the first chapter, which takes place years after they have graduated high school, the Swede, who wants help writing a memoir about his recently deceased father, invites the elderly Zuckerman to dinner. Zuckerman is captivated by the opportunity to explore what he dubs “the substratum,” his term for the deep and authentic life of the mind. This quest for the profound proves devastating as the Swede only discusses the happy, superficial lives of his family and does not even mention grieving for his father. During the dinner scene, Roth juxtaposes paragraphs in which the Swede relates inane family anecdotes against extended interior monologues tracking Zuckerman’s overwrought reactions to the disappointing way the meal develops. The chapter concludes with the narrator’s self-questioning rant, “Why the appetite to know this guy?... You’re craving depths that don’t exist. This guy is the embodiment of nothing.”

The dinner conversation dramatizes Roth’s self-destructive tension between the inner and outer life, which paralyzes the novel. Ironically, Zuckerman himself lacks a self-sufficient inner life and must search for the nonexistent inner life of the Swede to justify his own mental existence. While the Swede hopes to resolve the troubles of his inner life with the accomplishments of the outer life, the remaining characters are cut off from meaningful action.

Roth harshly ironizes the suburban middle-class conception of the “American Dream.” The comfortable amenities of bourgeois existence have drained the characters of meaningful “substrata” as well as worthwhile exterior vocations. While Roth successfully dramatizes how American values leave his characters trapped in hollow nether lives, all the reader is left with is an aftertaste of tired irony. None of the characters share any significant connections with other people. “American Pastoral” shows a bitter landscape of spiritual aridity in which Roth’s sardonic probing almost dehumanizes his characters. The overbearing irony of Roth’s enervated vision of America might easily fatigue his reader.

In contrast to “American Pastoral,” Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road” has room for love, purpose, and human heroism despite being set in a post-apocalyptic world. “The Road” centers on a father and son who try to survive while traveling through a ravaged American landscape that has been destroyed by some unspecified disaster. Both the inner and outer lives of the father and son are essential to the novel’s message. The external scenes where the pair hide from a band of roaming cannibals or chase a thief who stole a shopping cart holding their only food are filled with a basic human vitality that is lacking in “American Pastoral.” Moreover, a simple exchange in dialogue in which the father asks his son if he is cold is saturated with more genuine inner life than one of Zuckerman’s page long self-examination.

While I suspect that the commercial success of McCarthy’s work may be due to the tropes of science fiction and action rather than its literary merits, that does not diminish the power of McCarthy’s intensely human portrait of a father and son. Where Roth and many other contemporary novelists write about an ironic and dehumanizing world that leaves characters externally disconnected and spiritually enervated, McCarthy embraces humanity in all of its weakness, madness, and strength. Some people may find detailed digressions on spiritual exhaustion profound, but this reader found it merely exhausting.

—Columnist Theodore J. Gioia can be reached at tgioia@fas.harvard.edu.

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