Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Book Review: "Goodbye, Columbus," by Philip Roth (1959)

"Goodbye, Columbus", by Philip Roth, 1959.

Philip Roth, 1960's.
I recently read Philip Roth’s first book, “Goodbye, Columbus,” which includes the novella-length title piece and five short stories. First published in 1959, “Goodbye, Columbus” won the National Book Award the following year. The book’s critical reception placed Roth at the top of a list of young literary talent.  

“Goodbye, Columbus” details the summer romance between Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin. Neil is a recent college graduate working at a library, and Brenda is a college student at Radcliffe. Neil and Brenda are both Jewish, but her family is much more financially successful than his is. The difference between their families is pronounced, but the Patimkins are friendly to Neil, and even let him stay in their house for a week towards the end of the summer. 

Neil and Brenda quickly become lovers, and Neil gets way too hung up on persuading Brenda to get a diaphragm. She eventually acquiesces to his wishes, even though she doesn’t really want to get a diaphragm. For her part, Brenda is too hung up on having Neil be whatever she wants to him to be, not what he actually is. This is partly Neil’s fault, as he doesn’t stand up for himself as much as he should. When he vacations at the Patimkin house, Brenda makes him get up and run every morning because she wants him to, not because he seems to have any desire to. Like a lot of young romances, they are both trying too hard to shape the other person into their ideal rather than accepting the other person for who they are. 

One exchange that reveals this occurs as Neil and Brenda stretch in preparation for running. She says to him:

“’You know,’ Brenda said, ‘you look like me. Except bigger.’
We were dressed similarly, sneakers, sweat socks, khaki Bermudas, and sweat shirts, but I had the feeling that Brenda was not talking about the accidents of our dress-if they were accidents. She meant, I was sure, that I was somehow beginning to look the way she wanted me to. Like herself.” (P. 50)

Not surprisingly, Neil and Brenda’s relationship does not last much longer than the summer, as after Brenda goes back to college, her mother finds Brenda’s diaphragm hidden in her dresser. Needless to say, the Patimkins are shocked at what’s been happening right under their noses. When Brenda tells Neil about this, he exacerbates the situation by accusing Brenda of deliberately leaving the diaphragm in her drawer so her mother would find it. Much like a Woody Allen character, Neil just keeps stubbornly pushing at exactly the wrong point, and their relationship is over.

Personally, I found the title novella to be more interesting than the short stories. Roth creates vivid characters in “Goodbye, Columbus” that stick with you long after you’ve finished reading. The short stories are not as memorable, and the characters are not as finely drawn. The novella still feels fresh today, but most of the short stories are set in the past, and because of this “Goodbye, Columbus” sometimes feels like a much older book, like it was published in 1949 instead of 1959. “Defender of the Faith,” takes place in 1945, the main action of “You Can’t Tell a Man By the Song He Sings” takes place in 1942, and “Eli, the Fanatic” takes place in 1948. 

Interestingly enough, the five short stories in “Goodbye, Columbus” are some of the only short stories Roth has ever published, except for serialized parts of his novels. After this book, he seldom returned to the short story form. Obviously Roth must have found that his talents were better suited to longer works.

“The Conversion of the Jews” is a rather trifling story, as it details a young boy’s petulant desire to have others bow to his whims. He climbs onto the roof of his synagogue, and threatens to jump off unless the rabbi and his mother say that they believe in the Immaculate Conception, a key teaching of Catholicism. This placates the boy, and he comes down. I guess the point is that people will say anything so a boy won’t jump off of a roof, but that doesn’t seem to be a very interesting point to make. 

“Defender of the Faith” is a much more intriguing story, and my favorite of the short stories in this book. When the story was originally published in The New Yorker, it caused a large uproar among Jewish readers. The story is narrated by Sergeant Nathan Marx, a combat veteran who is posted back to the United States as the European campaign wraps up in the spring of 1945. Marx, who is Jewish, encounters a pushy private named Sheldon Grossbart, who is also Jewish. Grossbart asks for a lot of special favors, and Marx, against his better judgment, usually gives in to Grossbart’s wishes. 

Grossbart plays off of Marx’s desire to aid Jewish solidarity, asking to be excused from cleaning the barracks on Friday night so he and the other Jewish soldiers can attend religious services. Grossbart says that the Jews need to stick together.

“’That’s what happened in Germany,’ Grossbart was saying, loud enough for me to hear. ‘They didn’t stick together. They let themselves get pushed around.’” (P. 125) 

 Grossbart then wants to be given a weekend pass so he can go visit his aunt and celebrate Passover. It’s a month after Passover, and no one is supposed to get passes during basic training, but Marx gives in, writing a pass for Grossbart and two other Jewish privates. Marx is already greatly annoyed by Grossbart, but he convinces himself that he has done Grossbart a generous favor. The final straw comes when Grossbart returns from his aunt’s house with an egg roll for Marx, rather than the gefilte fish that Marx asked for. This strikes Marx as odd, and Grossbart admits that he just reread the letter and his aunt actually invited him home next week. Marx explodes in anger, and warns Grossbart to stay away from him. 

The soldiers are due to be sent to the West Coast and from there on to the Pacific, but Grossbart somehow pulls a string and is due to be sent east, to New Jersey, much closer to his home. When Marx learns of this, he pulls a string of his own and lies to the officer in charge of the roster, saying that Grossbart wants to be sent to the Pacific. Marx succeeds in getting Grossbart sent to the Pacific along with the other men.

It’s difficult to see today why the story caused such a furor. My best guess is that people were offended by the actions of the two main characters. Grossbart is a scheming jerk, and Marx abuses his power in order to punish Grossbart. Both characters do bad things that we might find morally wrong. Did readers get upset at Roth because he was showing that Jewish characters could be devious and immoral? 

Roth described the controversy about “Defender of the Faith” in the 2013 American Masters documentary, “Philip Roth Unmasked.” Roth says that after the story was published The New Yorker received many angry letters from readers:

“I was suddenly being assailed as an anti-Semite, this thing that I’d detested all my life. And a self-hating Jew. I didn’t even know what it meant.”

Roth goes on to talk about the subject matter of “Goodbye, Columbus”:

“There were those who were offended, and there were the rabbis who gave sermons denouncing me as an anti-Semite. I suppose what riled them about ‘Goodbye, Columbus’ was the story about a Jewish middle-aged man who is an adulterer, a Jewish girl having sex who bought a diaphragm. I maintained then, as I do now, that there were Jewish girls who bought diaphragms, and there were Jewish husbands who were adulterers. You know, Isaac Singer, when he was criticized by Jewish critics and Jewish readers for his stories, they would say rather ‘Mr. Singer, why must you write about Jewish whores and Jewish pimps?’ And Singer said ‘What should I write about? Portuguese whores? Portuguese pimps?’”

Roth was simply writing what he knew, and he refused to idealize his characters. Instead, he painted them as the complicated people human beings actually are.

“Epstein” is the above-mentioned story about a Jewish middle-aged married man who begins an affair with a neighbor. It’s not that compelling of a story. Perhaps Roth was trying to stretch and show that he could successfully channel an older man’s voice.

“You Can’t Tell a Man By the Song He Sings” is a rather dull story. It’s about a man who remembers an ex-con he went to high school with. It’s not very interesting or dramatic. But the end has a connection to one of Roth’s later works, as it’s revealed that a teacher they tormented was later fired during the Red Scare because he had been a Marxist in 1935. The subject of the Red Scare is one that Roth would return to much later in his 1998 novel, “I Married a Communist.” 

“Eli, the Fanatic” is the tale of a young Jewish lawyer who is hired by other young upwardly mobile Jews in his suburban community to put pressure on an Orthodox Jewish school to move away from their town. The suburban American Jews don’t want anything to do with the Orthodox Jews, who are displaced persons from Europe, scattered by World War II. It’s an interesting contrast between the two groups, who are in opposition, even though they are both Jewish. 

 “Goodbye, Columbus” is a very good first book, and it clearly showed that Roth had a lot of talent. The title novella is still a good read today, more than 50 years after it was first published, and it finds Roth dealing with many of the subjects that would inform much of his later writing-sex, class, family, and what it means to be a Jew in modern American society.


Marion said...

Just thought this might give you a smile. Some comment bot just tried to comment on a blog post of mine reviewing The Nose (opera) in which I'd mentioned Roth. The comment actually didn't sound like a bad translation and was kinda relevant, so I googled the words. They came from this blog. Congrats, somewhere on the internet and against your will and intent your words are being used for spam.

Mark said...

Hi Marion,
That's so weird! And frustrating! Hopefully none of my other blog posts are being recycled by spam bots. But that's exactly why people have to prove they're not robots to comment on this blog.

Thanks for letting me know,