AMERICAN PASTORAL Philip Roth Jonathan Cape, $270 The new novel from one of America's most famous authors concerns the fortunes of the Levovs, an affluent Swedish-Jewish family of glove-makers from Newark, New Jersey, whose comfortable serenity and well-heeled self-esteem is shattered when their lanky, stuttering, idealistic daughter becomes an urban guerilla in the tumultuous 1960s and blows up the local post office. Roth first came to notice almost 30 years ago with Portnoy's Complaint, a book that scandalised America's Jewish community with its portrait of the solitary erotic habits of a boy oppressed by a possessive Jewish mother. Two decades of writing novels about sex, Jewish life and himself, in more permutations than most people would have thought possible, followed. Then Roth suddenly shot to the forefront of American writing with a trio of books - Patrimony, Operation Shylock and Sabbath's Theater - that won major prizes and had critics reaching for superlatives. Nostalgia is a key ingredient in this new, long, and often-depressing book. Roth grew up in Newark, and the world of what was presumably his own middle-class childhood is evoked in brightly-lit detail. The techniques, moreover, of the glove-making business are described with such precision and affection that it would probably be enough to set up a factory tomorrow. The technique of the book is curious. It is written in swathes, one style succeeding another as, one imagines, the author was exhausted by each in turn. At one point it reads like Henry James - convoluted, endlessly hypothesising, suavely introspective. At another it is hard pornography, laying bare the lurid details of a young girl terrorist's attempt to seduce an industrialist. In one way the book seems to be an evaluation of a pivotal phase in American history, from John Kennedy's assassination to the fall of Nixon - a period when a rot set in that has never quite been eradicated. But Roth is a slippery customer. You can never be sure how much irony is mixed in with his elaborate portrayal of affluent Newark life. The degree of irony in the final sentences - 'And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?' - will be debated by critics for some time. So, too, will Roth's bid to be considered a Great American Novelist (his own ironically titled The Great American Novel was published in 1973). On the one hand his central character - the 'six-foot-three', blond Seymour Levov, school football star married to a former Miss New Jersey and a multimillion-dollar success story - is a sort of tragic, heroic King Lear whose Cordelia ends up living with derelicts on an underpass and wanted by the FBI. On the other, Roth's Kafkaesque sense of the grotesque, that led him to feature in an earlier novel a university professor who turned into a woman's breast, is never wholly absent. That leads you to wonder whether it is possible for such a writer to construct a social-realist assessment of a key period of American history under any circumstances. Despite passages of impressive verbal fluency, this large-scale statement seems unlikely to become the classic Roth would clearly love it to be. Newark, too, is on the face of it an ideal city in which to set a drama illustrative of national decline. It is a once-prosperous manufacturing centre that has been almost laid waste by race riots, economic collapse and American inner-city ills. But Roth has limited himself for so long to the mock-academic, the sexual and the farcically absurd that anything more spacious, more sober, and more simply old-fashioned feels improbable from him. So much is clearly the product of research, slotted in at an appropriate point, rather than of a genuinely creative imagination, that it is difficult to take seriously the emotions that purportedly go along with it. Again, Roth has always been described as a mixer-up of the serious and the farcical. He has even described himself in these terms, and this new novel demonstrates him to be as elusive and difficult to pin down as ever. Even the most climactic events - someone having a heart attack, for instance - are tainted by the trivial and the ridiculous. So this is no Mill on the Floss or Buddenbrooks because, despite the general tone of lament for a lost era of quiet prosperity and social cohesion, it is impossible not to hear in the background jokey old Roth cackling over his computer as he types another 400-page blockbuster to lure and perplex his readers. All in all, this reviewer was glad to finish this novel, and felt as depressed by what seemed its heartless technical brilliance as by the vision of a chunk of recent American history that its sombre story-line implies.