Imagine this sad, violent scenario.
An ethnic family in New Jersey. They belong to a controversial religion not wholly accepted in certain quarters of America. Still, the parents work hard and make a fine living.
The child? Not so much. The child becomes politically radicalized and soon enough plants an explosive device in an effort to cause death and destruction.
If this sounds like the life story of Ahmad Khan Rahmani, who planted bombs in Manhattan and at the Jersey Shore a few weeks back, you are right.
But it is also the story of the fictional Levov family at the center of the new movie American Pastoral, which opens up this week and stars Ewan McGregor (who also directs) and Jennifer Connelly.
The film is based on the explosive, brilliant novel of the same title by Philip Roth, who has seen many of his books (Indignation, The Human Stain) turned into movies lately.
There has not been much buzz about American Pastoral (which is usually bad news) but the book itself is one of the most celebrated of the last 40 years. A poll by The New York Times Book Review back in 2006 found that American Pastoral was arguably the second best book of the previous 25 years, behind only Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
There are many reasons why American Pastoral is celebrated. It tells the story of a semi-assimilated ethnic family that seems to have achieved the American Dream.
Meet Irish American Dawn Dwyer and Jewish American Seymour Irving “Swede” Levov. She is a former beauty queen from Elizabeth, New Jersey who, for all of her glamour, is wracked by anxiety about her humble upbringing.
“I know it’s just my Irish resentment, but I don’t like being looked down on,” Dawn says at one point.
The Swede, meanwhile, is a handsome, dashing athlete who goes on to become a successful businessman. He seems a great fit for the beauty queen.
True, Dawn and the Swede’s father clash intensely over the issue of religion. Swede’s father is worried about how the children will be raised in a lengthy exchange that is at once hilarious and chilling. This is also a reminder that religion divided just as many people in the good old days as it does today.
And yet, for awhile, things work out. The marriage of these two urban ethnic strivers flourishes, and they even move out of the city to a beautiful slice of the countryside in an attempt to become what we might all call “true Americans.”
Ah, but this is a tragedy. The Levovs have a daughter named Meredith. They call her Merry but she is not so happy. This is the 1960s after all.
And though the child is being raised in an affluence that is shocking not only to the rest of the world but also her own parents, the child rebels. She develops a speech impediment.
She gains an incredible amount of weight and, as the Vietnam War heats up, curses at Lyndon Johnson on the television. She begins spending nights in Manhattan with a radical crowd.
When a bomb goes off at a local shop, killing the owner, the Swede is forced to confront the fact that his own beloved daughter might have been behind it.
There is a message here about striving for utopia. Perhaps Dawn and the Swede simply wanted too much and sold out in an unseemly way.
But let’s give credit where credit is due. Many ethnic outsiders like Dawn and the Swede crossed ethnic and religious lines. Perhaps they didn’t find their perfect “American pastoral.” But things didn’t always end in tragic horror.
Let’s not play into the hands of immigration nihilists out there. There are realistic -- even hopeful -- stories of assimilation involving the Irish and others that are worth being told.
At a time when some people -- Trump voters, to be specific -- don’t seem to believe assimilation is even possible, the Irish-Jewish Levov marriage should remain some kind of hopeful American ideal.
Such unions won’t all end in pastoral beauty. But they don’t always end in tragedy. If they did, we’d have no great nation.