New Book on Sports Legends in Time for the World Series

Legends Never Die: Athletes and Their Afterlives in Modern America. By Richard Ian Kimball. Syracuse University Press, 2017. 

This review originally appeared in NEPCA News. 

On July 4, 1939, New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig bade farewell in a speech that has found its way into the pantheon of American history's most famous orations. When Gehrig told a Yankee Stadium crowd of 61,808 that he considered himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth," there was nary a dry eye to be seen. All knew that Gehrig was stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which robbed him of his strength and life before he reached his 38th birthday.

In a sense, argues Brigham Young University history professor Richard Ian Kimball, Gehrig was indeed lucky; he became a forever-young immortal. Kimball's is a study of how American culture canonizes athletes who die in the bloom of life. In a deft introduction, Kimball places sports stars that flamed out early within a grander sweep of Western luminaries, including Achilles, Pheidippides, battlefield soldiers, John F. Kennedy, and Princess Diana. He invokes A. E. Housman's 1896 poem "To an Athlete Dying Young" to affirm journalist Simon Barnes' observation that "only the unfinished is perfect" (3). In Kimball's words, "The black hole of unfulfilled potential magnifies the energy in the universe of memory" (4). Young athletes who perish tap into collective mourning rites as few others do. 

Kimball is perhaps hyperbolic to claim that sports deaths help Americans cope with their own mortality, but he is correct to assert that such passings are imbued with public significance. He illuminates this through selected case studies, beginning with the only athlete whose early death rivals Gehrig's in the public imaginary: Notre Dame football star George Gipp. If you have any doubt that sports matter, consider how Gipp's 1920 parting subsequently advanced the careers of his coach, Knute Rockne, and the man who played "The Gipper" in a 1940 Hollywood film: Ronald Reagan.

Kimball packs a lot into just 144 pages of text, with each figure standing as synecdoches for American society. The deaths of rodeo stars Bonnie McCarroll (1929) and Lane Frost (1989) hardened gender roles, with McCarroll's tragic bronco ride leading to enduring limitations on events open to women, and Lane's demise reinforcing perceptions of male toughness. Call it the difference between tragic victimhood and brave martyrdom. The sexual spin-off of this is the 1962 death of boxer Benny Paret at the hands of welterweight Emile Griffith. Many date the decline of boxing's popularity from this public death, but a greater irony lies with the savagery of Griffith's blows after Paret uttered a homophobic slur. Griffith was a known bisexual. That such an individual was compelled to preserve his manhood with such bloodlust speaks volumes. NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt represents the other end of public morality scale. Kimball whimsically references him as "Princess Diana with a push broom mustache" (100), but his death at the 2001 Daytona 500 took on redemptive meanings for numerous evangelical Christians, complete with perceived miracles. Earnhardt's death also provided a template for the phenomenon of "cybermourning" (10) in the emerging electronics age. Kimball connects each athlete to popular culture; after all, mourning remains mostly private unless print, film, television, music, or cyberspace universalizes and memorializes loss.

Kimball concludes with a look at three baseball legends that were not "lucky" enough to die young: Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams. Each lived long enough for revisionists to tarnish their images. DiMaggio's persona as a suave sophisticate gave way to stories of his jealousy, money obsession, and egoism. Mantle's once hidden vices such as his alcoholism and womanizing became public knowledge. It's hard to imagine a sadder exit than that of Williams, who was already viewed as a misanthrope. But that is inconsequential in comparison to the family squabble that led to Williams being cryogenically frozen after death, his body in one tube, his severed and battered head in another. One might argue that Mantle is out of place in this chapter, as before his death he did public penance for his misdeeds and is now invoked as a cautionary tale—a new life for an old legend. But such a quibble hardly diminishes Kimball's larger point that athletes who outlive their fame are heroes for a season, whereas those taken prematurely are immortals.

Legends Never Die is a natural for undergraduate classes given its brevity and its easy-to-digest prose. It would work quite well in a sports history course, but also in classes focusing on aspects of American culture such as celebrity and fandom studies, identity politics, folklore, civic religion, and explorations of death and dying.  

Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst


The Wailin' Jennys: First New Release in Six years

Red House Records #305

In Greek mythology the Sirens were dangerous creatures whose mellifluous voices lured sailors into treacherous waters where their boats were dashed upon the reefs. Odysseus stopped the ears of his crew with wax and had himself lashed to the mast just so he could hear them. Good thing he did, as he thrashed, howled, and screamed in madness at the sheer beauty of their tones. The Wailin' Jennys are a real-life equivalent of such vocal enticement. Luckily for us, their intentions are benign.

Fifteen is the Jennys' first album in six years—released just in time to honor the fifteen-year partnership between Nicky Mehta, Ruth Moody, and Heather Masse.  When you have such lovely voices and know how to harmonize them, there's no sense in competing with them. The instrumentation is wisely kept at a minimum (if there is any at all) so that we might savor every word and soaring note. Yet, somehow it feels rich, not spare. The traditional "Old Churchyard" is just vocals atop of viola drone and that's all we need. It's all about the song for the Wailin' Jennys and to that end, they perform covers rather than originals. These include Tom Petty's "Wildflowers," Dolly Parton's "Light of aClear Blue Morning," Emmylou Harris' "Boulder to Birmingham," Warren Zevon's "Keep Me in Your Heart," and Jane Silberry's "The Valley." But even if you know the song, it will sound new because you will be forced to listen to glorious voices, with few or no competing instruments. To my ear, the only misfire is their rendition of Paul Simon's "Love Me Like a Rock," which is too pretty and lacks Simon's urbane and soulful hipster vibe. But let's not nitpick; a new Wailin' Jennys album is cause for celebration. Unlike the Greek sirens, the Jennys soothe, delight, and bear healing musical delights. Okay—they do one not-so-nice thing. There are only nine songs on Fifteen. I would have liked at least six more.

Rob Weir


Lower Expectations for Current MFA Shows


Summer of Love (through October 22, 2017) ★★ ½
Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics  (through April 1, 2018)
Charles Sheeler: From Doylestown to Detroit (through November 5) ★★★
Mark Rothko: Reflection (through July 1, 2018) ★★★ ½
Follow the North Star: Inuit Art (through December 31) ★★★★

 I just took in five current shows at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). Each has its merits, but don't buy into the hype. You can easily take in all five without over-taxing your brain and have plenty of time left for a trip to the North End for a good meal.

There are only a few days left to see The Summer of Love: Photography and Graphic Design, but no big deal if you miss it unless you need a nostalgia trip or have younger folks in tow to whom you wish to expose to some cultural history. Don't bother at all if you saw the vastly superior show of posters from the Summer of Love (1967) at Smith College four years ago. The MFA show is small and its very remoteness—you have to wend to the back of the Peruvian gallery to get there—indicates the timidity with which it was assembled. It's basically album cover art, rock show posters, and a few dozen photographs, many of which have been so often reproduced they are now iconic. We've known for years that poster designers such as Stanley Mouse and Victor Moscoso were deeper into the artistic past—Viennese Secessionists, Bauhaus, 1930s muralists—than into designer chemicals. It's trippy to see a whole wall of day-glo and block lettering come-on from Bay Area enclaves such as the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom, but there were only a few I hadn't seen before. I did marvel in the outstanding composition of Herb Greene's street photos. Greene excelled in giving us just slightly skewed angles to put us a bit off guard—a touch of subtlety from an age of deliberate excess. I also experienced a tinge of sadness from my realization that every photo and poster featuring Janis Joplin depicts a smiling, sunny person we know didn't exist beyond the frame. I also really miss album cover art. Can't do that with an mp3 file. Hell, we can't even do decent sound with an mp3 file.


The MFA is really hyping a new exhibit spotlighting contemporary Japanese artist Takashi Murakami and his collaboration with scholar Nobuo Tsuji, whose Lineage of Eccentrics lends its name to the show's subtitle. It's easy to grasp that the rows of smiley faced flowers lining a canvas from an artist such as Murakami is ironic commentary on the rows of delicate flowers that often fringed Japanese silk-paneled screens. Ha ha! Got the joke. I also know one tiptoes upon dangerous reefs when trying to call one thing art and something else kitsch. Yet as much as I like the idea of blurring pedantic high/low art judgments, it's hard to see Murakami's "superflat" images as anything other than kitsch. His enormous murals certainly draw upon traditional images, but I felt more like I was in the toy section at Wal-Mart than in the MFA. It didn't take long for boredom to overwhelm me.  

I am a fan of the Precisionist paintings of Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) for their geometric displays of bisecting angles, horizontals, and verticals associated with American industrialism at is smoky majestic apex. From Doylestown to Detroit turns its attention to Sheeler's photographic development. It opens with images of barns and buildings from his Pennsylvania youth. The second section is from his time in New York in the 1920s, where he fell in step with the city's energy, grittiness, and waves of change. Most of the photos on display are stills from a film titled Manhatta (title from Walt Whitman) that he made with Paul Strand in 1920-21. That film, which was avant-garde in its day, runs on a loop in the gallery and is worth watching. It is, of course, silent, but look especially at what Sheeler does with light and shadow, bird's eye viewpoints, and smoke. The final section comes from Sheeler's successful foray into commercial art shots of Ford Motor's enormous River Rouge complex. This became templates for his painting and it's safe to say the factories impressed Sheeler as much as New York. This show won't change anyone's mind that Sheeler was a better painter than shutterbug, but it's interesting in its own right. Although it's in the MFA's photography wing, the photos could have been enhanced by displaying them with just a handful of paintings on the same subjects.

I like small, manageable exhibits, and Mark Rothko (1903-70) invites such a treatment. His color swath canvasses—often solids—make him a favored whipping boy for claims that non-representational art is pointless and childish. It's neither of those and Rothko's "solid" colors are often luminous with many underlying hues—more like northern lights than a painted room. Still, too many Rothkos in a gallery can induce trance. The MFA show has just a handful in one place, beginning with an early representational piece and moving us to his rectangular color bars. It forces one to look deeper into the seeming voids. I was also gratified to see a poetic musing on Rothko from John Taggart, my undergraduate English professor.

Pudlo Pudlat, "Spring Travelers"

 A few weeks ago I expressed the view that you might need to go to Ottawa to see great Inuit art. I was wrong. The MFA has a small but choice selection of works from the collection of Estrellita and Yousouf Karch (1908-2002), the latter a sublime Turkish/Canadian photographer. It's mere handful of graphic designs and sculptures, but everything is there that I wrote about earlier: the intersections between humans and nature, the uneasy juxtapositions of tradition and modernity, Arctic Circle humor, and stark but striking design. I really loved Josephee Kakee's "My Son's First Catch," various images from Pudlo Pudlat, and Lucy Meeko's perfect for Halloween "The Story of the Man Who Lost His Flesh." 

Kakee, "My Son's First Catch"

Meeko. "Story of the Man Who Lost His Flesh"

Pudlo Pudlat "New Horizons"


Les Paul Documentary Shines Light on Guitar Pioneer

Directed by Evan Haiman
MVDvisual #0392D

Only one person is in both the Rock 'n Roll and the National Inventors Hall of Fame; his name is Lester William Pulsfuss–better known as Les Paul (1905 – 2009). When Michael Braunstein, director of the Les Paul Foundation, remarked, "Les Paul is the Father of Modern Music," he was stating fact, not engaging in hyperbole or organizational promotion.

Les Paul certainly made his mark musically. He hit the road at age 13, when country music was in its recording adolescence, and left it behind in the 1930s when he discovered Django Reinhardt and began playing jazz with Art Tatum. At the height of that success, he pivoted again because he was displeased with how the acoustic guitar sounded when attached to electric pickups. He played a different kind of axe pumped through a different kind of sound system when he resurfaced in 1948 to make hit records with country singer Mary Ford, his second wife (1948-64).

Les Paul did not invent the solid body electric guitar –Adolph Rickenbacker and several others did that– but he made it sound better. It started when Paul sawed an Epiphone acoustic in half, inserted a "log"– a 2 x 4, some magnets, and some wiring— under its surface and tinkered until he finally got Gibson to produce "The Broadcaster" in 1952, the prototype of a guitar still favored by legions of rock 'n rollers. Along the way, he did a few other things. Through Ford, he experimented with close microphone singing, which gave vocals a whole new feel, and he also pioneered in multi-track recording and playback. In all, Les Paul held more than 450 patents.

A recent DVD pays tribute to Les Paul's achievements. It's largely a 2006 interview merged with a Hollywood concert held that same year to honor Paul's 90th birthday. Edgar Winter asks, "Where would rock n' roll be without the electric guitar?" and the concert fittingly trots out some top players to strut their stuff on instruments inspired by Paul's designs. The lineup includes: Joe Perry (Aerosmith), Slash (Guns n' Roses), Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Steve Lukather (Toto), Robben Ford (KISS, Miles Davis), and Neal Schon (Journey). Highlights include Winter belting out "Superstition," and a nice ensemble turn on "Rock n' Roll Hootchie Koo," but three performances really stand out: Joe Satriani's innovative solo, Buddy Guy killing it on "Hootchie Coochie Man," and Shayne Steele delivering turn-back-the-clock Aretha-like power vocals.

The footage is rock at its best—loud, aggressive, and fronted by muscular guitar gods.  Concert material is interspersed with interview clips. I'd be lying if I said any of this was remarkable filmmaking. A lot more attention should have been paid to structure. Like many fans, the director and producers of this film assumed too much—even though the point is made early on that Les Paul is an underappreciated figure. A more linear script with strategically placed information would have fleshed out basics (so I didn't have to in this review). But maybe this is because the film's central figure, though no saint, tended toward self-effacement. Of the post-1960s guitar giants, Paul remarked, "I started and they kept it going." Toward the film's end, though, some of Paul's puckish humor creeps in. When commenting on the new wave he commented, "Each guy has something to say. It's what inside that makes it unique." He followed with a twinkle and an impish grin: "But they all got it from me."

Yep. If you don't know, watch and learn. If you do know, pick up your air guitar and play along.

Rob Weir


Currier and Toulouse Lautrec a Great match

Currier Museum of Art
Manchester, NH
Through January 7, 2018

Aristide Bruant
Art and the bourgeois life don't get along very well. There's something about comfort, contentment, and respectability that gets in the way of creative muses. If you think about it, some of the greatest art has been made by tortured souls: Courbet, Van Gogh, Schiele, Claudel, Kahlo, Warhol…. With the possible exception of Van Gogh, few plumbed the depths as deeply as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). A new show at the (underappreciated) Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, displays more than a hundred of Lautrec's works and it's easily one of the best shows of the year.

Lautrec was born into an aristocratic family, but was beset by problems and ill health from the beginning. He broke one leg at age 13, the other at 14, and neither healed properly. This was blamed for the fact that he stopped growing, but the congenital condition that often bears his name is the more likely culprit. His parents were first cousins from a line of inner-bred families. Although Lautrec's head and torso were normally shaped, Lautrec topped out at 4'8" and his short legs and fingers are consistent with inherited forms of dwarfism. But even had he been of normal stature, Lautrec was not temperamentally suited for conventionality. By six he showed distaste for propriety and a precocious artistic ability for the painting, drawing, ceramics, and printmaking that consumed his remaining thirty years on earth. Later came drinking, prostitution, absinthe addiction, and failed flings in the commercial art realm. He left behind more than 5,000 drawings, around 1,000 oil and watercolor paintings, some 360 prints, and a smattering of objects and sculptures. 

Jane Avril
  The hyphenated "Toulouse" was an affected part of his last name; Lautrec assumed it after an 1887 exhibition in that French city. But it was the opening of the Moulin Rouge that had the greatest impact on his art. Lautrec spent his days among gays, lesbians, whores, the sporting crowd, and addicts such as himself before dying of alcoholism and syphilis at age 36. There were few better at presenting the allure and horrors of debauchery than he. But just because Lautrec indulged in Parisian lowlife didn't make him uncaring. As the Currier exhibition shows, Lautrec's sympathies lay with the prostitutes, can-can girls, and entertainers, not their clients. His favorite models included bombastic cabaret singer Aristide Bruant, the clown Cha-U-Kao, comic actress Yvette Guilbert, and can-can dancer Jane Avril. He also adored the prostitutes and often showed them in candid moments: in the bath, lesbian lovers embracing, dressing, dancing, combing their hair…

Shadowy predator?
The term "male gaze" wasn't invented until 1975, but Lautrec understood it and his compositions suggest he was disgusted by it. He often displays female escorts and prostitutes in full color and/or detail, but reduces the older bourgeois men to silhouette shadow, or parody. Sometimes he uses salacious poses to call attention to what the male gaze is really about, not what it pretends to be. 

Eros Vanquished

Lautrec also had a sharp critique of social conventions of all sort. What else is one of make of the suggestive cover for Catalogue d'affiches artistiques (Catalog of Artistic Posters)?  Of plunging necklines and gratuitous crotch shots? Or his devastating Eros Vanquished? Or his wicked depiction of a an early automobile driver—a pursuit of the wealthy at the time of his death—in which the driver looks like as if he lifted images of a maniacal anarchist and put him in a car jacket.

His irreverence and humor partly explain why Lautrec never made much money with commercial art and most of his prints adorned small magazines or the dance halls and bars he frequented. His was a tragic life, but what a trove of treasures he bequeathed us.I highly recommend seeing these prints from the Museum of Modern Art in Manchester, as MoMA seldom has this many on display at one time.

Rob Weir


Sjostrum, Dunne, Kilgore, Strong Water and Others: New Music

Tyler Sjöström is a Chicago-based singer with umlauts in his name and desperation in his soul. He has a new album, Bones, Hold Me Up, plus a Noisetrade project called Saucy Sampler and here's your takeaway point: he really knows how to frame a song. His songs tend to deal with themes such recovery, survival, and trying to be strong—which would be standard folk fare, except that his takes are smart, honest, and robust. "Holding On" is a catchy tune ditty of the hand-clapping variety, but his strong guitar, open voice, and offbeat cadences make it more than that. "Red River" is another one that catches you slightly off guard. Sjöström doesn't have a naturally big voice, but he makes it sound that way and tosses in some whistling for something that's like Appalachia meets the Great Plains. "Straight Bourbon Whiskey" is about a sad man who I merely "half way gone," knocking himself out with things that "won't kill my body/It will kill soul." I also really liked "Ghostly," which comes off as electrified mountain music with resonant low notes and a definitive bom-bom-BOM pattern that makes for a really great arrangement. If my review doesn't entice, you gotta love a guy whose take on his own art is "music wrought by the love of the wild and the pursuit of truth, spun as cognitive word vomit with the frills of folk." Stick this guy on your one-to-watch-for list. ★★★★

Brian Dunne is a Brooklyn-based singer songwriter with a voice that's what a folkier version of Ryan Adams might sound like. Dunne's Bug Fixes and Performance Improvements is a confessional album and the sins for which he wishes forgiveness is that he has a tendency to screw up a lot. His single "Don't Give Up On Me" is typical. It's a gorgeous little song—made all the more so with Liz Longley singing backup—rendered in high sweet voice. In it he admits he's not perfect and that he's looking for perseverance more than redemption. Another really great song is "Taxi," which about the search for something unknown and unnamed.: He said kid are you going?/I said that's a good question/He laughed and said you'll figure it out/But I'm riding in the backseat?in this old taxi/Heading through a tunnel downtown. Many of Dunne's songs are stripped down, which gives the LP the feel of a live performance. I really liked his honest emotions and the way in which he tosses off lines that capture them. "We Don't Talk About It" is about a relationship in which the lights have gone out: We don't talk about it anymore/Your silence is your way of war. There's just enough electric guitar in this one to add to the desperation. "Here I Go Again" has a nice riff, the first part of which is evocative of Richard Thompson's "Vincent Black Lightning." The scattered and quick notes mirror lyrics that express the fear that another screw-up looms. "Chelsea Hotel" is also terrific. It's famed for the fact quite a few angst-ridden people have dwelt there and Dunne uses it as a metaphor for ghosts and psychological crutches. Yet it, like most of the material, is so musically pleasing that it takes a moment to get that. Terrific album from still another talented alum of the Berklee School of Music. ★★★★

Little Reader is a Nashville-based pop duo consisting of Kate Tucker and Russ Flournoy. Their debut release, The Big Score, draws inspiration from bands such as Depeche Mode by way of The Bangles. Featured track "Speed of Light" is typical of Little Reader's approach. It's filled with oscillating electronic pulses and guitar that's made fresh through hints of musical retrofitting. It's danceable and catchy. The downside is that this is also the formula for other songs I sampled: "Running Toward the Sun," "Burn Eternal," and "Best Regret." Overall the instrumentation dazzles more than the vocals. Flournoy has the power to punch through the thick mix, but Tucker's is better suited for quieter material. More variety would guard against becoming a now-but-not-tomorrow phenomenon. ★★ ½

You never know what will happen when you leave a town like Bellingham, Washington and land in Austin. It worked well for Shawnee Kilgore, who you might know for doing some music for director Joss Whedon. Now the two of them have an EP, Back to Eden, a six-song project for which Whedon wrote most of the lyrics and Kilgore the music. Kilgore has the kind of voice you'll either love or think odd; it's small and a bit nasal, but I like the fact that like all good singers, she knows how to bend, inflect, and color it. My favorite track is "Unforgiven," with its wonderful line, I was told I came out crooked/So I walked a crooked line. The fiddle and backing vocals come from Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek. The title track is also superb. It has a lonesome feel that's enhanced by Janeen Rae Heller's musical saw and deepened by Vanessa Freebairn's cello. I also liked how Kilgore's voice contrasted to Eric Holden's bass on "Three Legged Dog," and slid between Peter Adams' quiet piano in "Love Song." ★★★★

Strong Water is a Harrisonburg, Virginia-centered trio plus friends whose take on Americana is influenced by Noah Gunderson and Mumford and Sons. I'd call it muscular bluegrass sifted through rock and folk rock. Their debut LP, titled Strong Water, makes them a band to watch. Lead vocalist Greg Brennan, also the band's guitarist, has a whiskey-soaked voice that is so powerful that he over-sings on occasion—more like he's playing arena rock than bluegrass—but he performs with such earnestness that it's easy to forgive him. But you will certainly not find flaws with the amazing fiddling of J.J. Hosteller, or the fine harmonies she lays down behind Brennan. Check out the cool slow-run-run-run-slow patterning of "Tippie Canoe," the lead/echo vocal formula of "Remember July," the desperation of "Derailed," and the atmospheric moodiness of "Evergreen." These are all fine songs but what will linger in the end are the superb arrangements. There's the breakdown fiddle of "Streets of Gold," the back-beat of "Dinobones," the fiddle/cello opening of "Golden Days," and the as-advertised "Jam in G." If these don't spin your head, "Whiskey Sour" will. Its electric power is shot through with rock and R& B, but it's the strings that sound more dangerous still. Here's a young band that knows how to build drama. ★★★★

If you like big music, as in B-I-G, try The Weeks and their ironically named Easy Does It. This is bop and hop dance music—not always profound, but good loud rock n' roll. "Bobby" feels like a souped-up 50s throwback and even has a switchblade reference to give a whiff of dangerous nostalgia. Check out the structure of "Wishin' My Week Away," but put away all the technical analysis—it's basically noise, a few guitar runs, noise, more runs, and lots of noise. And that's kind of their point. There are occasional lead guitar breakouts, but these Jackson, Mississippi lads are more into rock as attitude and amplitude. "Lawman's Daughter," for instance, is a classic bad boy/good girl song and the fact that he's a wanted man complicates things, to say the least. A personal favorite was "Talk Like That." Not much poetry in this one either—it's just robust and loud for those times when that's all I want from a song. ★★★


American Pastoral: Video Review

Directed by Ewan McGregor
Lionsgate, 108 minutes, R (language, violent images, sexual content)
★★ 1/2   

American Pastoral was one of the biggest box offices bombs of all of 2016. In most places it closed before the theater popcorn filled the hopper and it took in a mere $541,000. It's not that terrible, but being merely mediocre isn't good enough for an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Philip Roth (1998).

To repeat a point I've made in other reviews, there simply haven't been many decent films about the 1960s counterculture. Most are either embarrassingly romantic or conservative screeds. American Pastoral gets credit for at least attempting to interject nuance, but ultimately it's as flat a bowling alley. The blame for this rests squarely on the shoulders of director Ewan McGregor, who simply hasn't mastered that role at this stage of his career. The film opens in 1995, with Roth's frequent alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), in Newark to attend his 45th high school reunion. There he runs into an old friend, Jerry Levov and right away we have problems. For old friends, Nathan and Jerry are icier than freezer pops in Greenland. The scene is a hackneyed device for one of the most shopworn of all filmmaking techniques: the voice over narrative that sets up a flashback.

American Pastoral centers on Jerry's brother, Seymour ("Swede"), who was the high school/college Golden Boy who married the Golden Girl and former Miss Jersey, Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly). After amusing but overly sweet overtures to convince Swede's father, Lou (Peter Reigert) that a nice Jewish boy and a nice Roman Catholic girl are meant for each other, Swede (McGregor) and Dawn proceed to build a Golden Life in the Golden 1950s: a tidy home, Swede's takeover of Lou's glove factory, a happy interracial workforce, and the birth of a flaxen-haired daughter upon whom her parents dote. But we all know what Shakespeare said about the glister of gold. The Vietnam War radicalizes daughter Meredith (Dakota Fanning), mom and pop are at a loss to know what to do with foul-mouthed angry as a hornet "Merry," and are too inept to prevent her from trudging over to New York City to hang out with other radicals. The Levovs vainly try to stay above the turmoil of the 1960s—rather turgidly told through stitched-together news clips—and to maintain the historic alliance between blacks and Jews in the wake of the Newark race riot. The latter gets a stagey treatment, by which I mean it truly looks more like a theater set than an urban riot. Piece by piece, Merry is slipping away. When a bombing kills an innocent shopkeeper the Levovs have known forever, Merry is the prime suspect and disappears within a group that's the Weather Underground thinly veiled. Every new bombing makes the Levovs wonder if Merry is involved.

Roth readers will recognize another common trope: the erosion of the American Dream. (How meta—a trope about a trope!) Dawn is metaphorically and then physically transformed by all of this, while Swede grows obsessed with trying to find his daughter and wonders what has happened to basic human decency when his only connection to her is Rita Cohen (Valerie Curry), a vulgar slogan-chanting taunt-the-Establishment punk. The deeper Swede goes, the more his American pastoral turns to parched earth.
McGregor departs from the novel at various places as the film winds to a clunky conclusion—none of which are improvements.

There's a lesson here: Don't try to upgrade a book that carries off literature's top prize. Here's another: Ewan McGregor is much better in front of the camera than behind it. It's an interesting idea to play off the liberalism of his central family. We seldom see the clash between liberals and radicals in films about the 1960s, though the two did indeed despise each other with as much fervor as they battled conservatives. There's also an enticing theme of liberals betraying each other. Sadly, McGregor lacks the panache to flesh out these moments or to bring to life much of the detail from Roth's novel (some of which was drawn from actual people he knew).

Maybe it's not so surprising that it took nearly twenty years for anyone to make American Pastoral into a film. Perhaps it's simply too sprawling in scope to lend itself to a good adaptation. Should you watch McGregor's effort? There's certainly no harm in downloading it. Like I said; it's neither terribly good not terribly bad. It just made me sigh. If we can make so many great films about Vietnam, why haven't we made at least one about the war at home?

Rob Weir