Study Guide

Nathan Zuckerman in American Pastoral

Nathan Zuckerman

Aww, c'mon guys. Don't call him Skip.

Nathan Zuckerman is a famous novelist and a character in eight other Philip Roth novels as of this writing. In the last of these, Exit GhostZuckerman meets his death and speaks to us from beyond the grave… meaning he can still be in more books if Roth wants him to! He's Nathan The Friendly Ghost.

Like Roth, Zuckerman was born in 1933 and grew up in Newark, New Jersey, in the mostly Jewish Weequahic neighborhood. Roth's The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography begins with a letter from Roth asking Zuckerman to critique Roth's autobiography. Later in The Facts, Zuckerman responds with a letter of his own. He writes,

Don't publish. You are far better writing about me than "accurately" reporting your own life. […] I owe everything to you, while you, however, owe me nothing less than the freedom to write freely. I am your permission, your indiscretion, the key to disclosure.

This "freedom" might account for some of the wacky things in this novel. Like the hamster-skin coat he remembers Jerry making in grade school. No, that isn't Zuckerman making things up. The hamster-skin coat is confirmed by none less than the Swede's mother, Sylvia Levov (7.103). Don't get us wrong, Zuckerman does make things up… but he also reports on the bizarre things he sees and knows. He's also a real joker, even at his angriest and most outrageous, even when he's sad, or talking about sad things, the jokes just keep on coming.

In American Pastoral Zuckerman is about 63 years old and is recovering from prostate surgery. He is "impotent and incontinent" (1.64), living alone and writing his books. When he meets Jerry Levov at their 45th high school reunion, Jerry (not knowing about the impotence and the incontinence) says,

"Who are you, Socrates? I don't buy it. Purely the writer. The single-minded writer. Nothing more." (3.36)

Zuckerman tells Jerry that if he'd focused solely on his writing before, he "could have saved himself a lot of wear and tear" (3.37). He also reveals to Jerry that he's at the reunion because he thought he might find "unsettling surprises" (3.9). As a novelist, he thrives on unsettling surprises. Sounds like he's looking for material for his next novel.

Jerry gives him the most unsettling surprise of the evening—that the Swede is dead and that the Swede's daughter is the "Rimrock Bomber." A childhood idol, his murderous daughter—these are just the kind of inspirations Zuckerman has been looking for!

So, Zuckerman acts as narrator for the first part of American Pastoral, and then as author of the story of the Swede, which seems to be told in the third person. (For more on this see "Narrator Point of View.") He hangs out with the Swede once a few months before the Swede dies, and the Swede seems to have read his books, but he doesn't actually play a role in the story of the Swede's life.