"How could a big man like you fuck up like this?" That's the question that Nathan Zuckerman fears being asked -- in Philip Roth's Pulitzer-winning American Pastoral (1997) -- if he were to show the book he's written about the tragic life of his old Newark classmate Seymour "Swede" Levov to Levov's brother.
Roth's novel is Zuckerman's effort to discover through fiction the greater truth of disordered facts. Zuckerman admits that he's certainly got much wrong in his fictionalized account of how a mid-century golden boy and his beauty-queen wife could find themselves utterly undone in the face of "the indigenous American berserk." Yes, the Swede did inherit his father's Newark glove factory, and his stuttering teen daughter did light out from rural Jersey after blowing up a small-town post office in protest of the war in Vietnam. What's uncertain -- what's made up by Zuckerman -- is just who the Levovs were, what they said and what they felt. Despite its sweep, there's an unusual humility to Roth's novel, an admission that it's all just one man's impassioned guess.
"How could a big man like you fuck up like this?" I can imagine a chagrined Roth devotee asking Ewan McGregor, who directed and stars as Swede in this staid, stagy reduction. Like the novel, McGregor's film introduces Zuckerman (David Strathairn) as our narrator, wondering over the fate of the strapping Swede, a good Jewish kid who married the shiksa of his dreams (Jennifer Connelly). The film, though, can't wrap its head around the concept of Zuckerman as author. Instead, the story of the Swede facing the late '60s crack-up -- Newark's riots; Weatherman-style bombings -- plays as flatly objective movie scenes, missing the novel's richness and urgency.