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Tuesday
Jul142009

1960

Goodbye, Columbus

by Philip Roth

Original Publisher: Houghton Mifflin and Company
Current Publisher: Vintage Books

Larry Dark wrote:

If Philip Roth wrote nothing but short stories, he still might be one of our greatest writers. Goodbye, Columbus, his first book and his only story collection, is that good. And the second story in the book, “The Conversion of the Jews,” (which, on a personal note, parallels some of my own Hebrew school travails) might be the best in the book. It concerns a boy named Ozzie who is twice slapped in the face—once by his mother and once by a rabbi—for daring to ask whether a virgin birth is at least possible given God’s vast powers. It is a powerful question because it challenges the rabbi’s casual dismissal of Christianity, which, after all, is no more irrational than Judaism. Fleeing the classroom after the second slap, Ozzie takes to the roof and makes his two oppressors—along with his classmates and the firemen who have stretched out a net to catch him should he jump—get down on their knees, concede the possibility that “God can make a child without intercourse,” and declare that they believe in Jesus Christ. It’s a very funny story that touches on serious subjects, including how damaging repression and violence in the name of God can be.

As I reread the entire collection, I found a brief passage in the title story that to me suggests this then precocious young writer’s future greatness:

"Go to hell, all of you!” Brenda said, and now she was crying and I knew when she ran off I would not see her, as I didn’t, for the rest of the afternoon.

The clause set off by commas, the “as I didn’t,” intervenes to let the reader know that this story is being told with perspective and resignation. It is, to my mind, a masterly touch that hints at the authorial prowess Roth continues to display 50 years after the publication of Goodbye, Columbus.

 

Larry Dark has been Director of The Story Prize since its inception in 2004. Previously, he was series editor for six volumes of The O. Henry Awards and edited four other anthologies.

Patrick Rosal wrote:

Professor Marty Kellman announced to us on the first day of class that he chose his wardrobe by looking around his bedroom and finding which shirt the cat hadn’t pissed on yet. Marty—who spoke with ease, erudition and humor, about Homer, Breughel, Dada, Ishmael Reed, T.H. White and the New York Rangers (a decades-long season-ticket holder)—was the one who guided us into Philip Roth’s working-class Newark and its wealthy suburbs depicted in Goodbye, Columbus.

Roth’s novella records the transformation of his fictional Newark into the Newark many of us in Marty’s class a generation and a half later, lived and did business in. Many of us were born and/or raised in and around that very city, but the social upheavals of four decades pushed Roth’s characters outside our historical and cultural frame.

Luckily, we had Marty, who was the kind of elitist a democracy does well with: smart, generous, and chronically irreverent. Marty’s studies and upbringing as an orthodox Jew in Brooklyn laid the foundation for his astonishing intellect (he read in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, among others), the kind of scholarly wit that, if not for some poor career choices, might have earned him a national reputation. (Apparently, he resigned from the faculty at a university looking to rename itself; Marty suggested to the committee, “How about change it to Harvard? Their school seems to do well with that name.”)

Neil, the main character of Roth’s novella, is thrust into the Patimkins’ world of privilege. Nearly all of us in Marty’s class were the first in our families to go to college and/or children of immigrants, if not immigrants ourselves. Our foray into a Western intellectual tradition sometimes felt like a prolonged, painful trip into Short Hills, New Jersey. Though Marty wasn’t much interested in the personal use of literature, he challenged us to imagine the city that had preceded our own complicated versions of Newark. He invited us to participate in the canonical traditions (Once, when I reported to Marty my reading list from grad school, he simply admonished me: “Less Neruda. More Stevens.”).

Literature, like Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, connects us to its invented worlds, as well as to people who have read those same inventions. Literature connects us, also, to the people who loved those books enough in the first place that they handed them forward. Marty was an awkward, pear-shaped man. In his later years, a degenerative disease severely debilitated him, then finally took him, which is to say, Marty had a near-wreck of a body, and a remarkable (pardon the phrase, Oscar Freedman) cathedral of a mind.

Patrick Rosal is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Uprock Headspin Scramble and Die and My American Kundiman. He was awarded a Fulbright grant to the Philippines in 2009.

Liz Rosenberg wrote:

I am always struck by the perfection of Goodbye, Columbus, however many times I read and teach it. It is the perfect Jewish American novel—perfect in its pacing; plotting; its metaphors (the librarian’s “behind barging against his suit jacket like a hoop”); its fruitful Edens: “There were greengage plums, black plums, red plums, apricots, nectarines, peaches, long horns of grapes, black, yellow, red, and cherries, cherries flowing out of boxes and staining everything scarlet...and on the top shelf, half of a huge watermelon, a thin sheet of wax paper clinging to its bare red face like a wet lip. Oh Patimkin! Fruit grew in their refrigerators and sporting goods dropped from their trees!” One could die happy after writing a passage like that.

Roth has perfect pitch, as witness Aunt Gladys: “’He wants canned peaches, I have a refrigerator full of grapes I have to get rid of....’ Life was a throwing off for poor Aunt Gladys, her greatest joys were taking out the garbage, emptying her pantry, and making threadbare bundles for what she still referred to as the Poor Jews in Palestine. ”And there’s the perfection of every minor character—the black boy at the library in love with Gauguin; black-bellied Mr. Patimkin; Harriet, the future sister-in-law who “nodded her head insistently whenever anybody spoke. Sometimes she would even say the last few words of your sentence with you, though that was infrequent.”

Goodbye, Columbus is not sweet—it is a bitter tonic. I have never settled on what the narrator claims as “that hideous emotion I always felt for her... the underside of love.” Resentment? Fury? “How can I describe loving Brenda? It was so sweet, as though I’d finally scored that twenty-first point.” A nasty honesty carries the book—carries into the five stories that complete the collection. Roth’s darkly comic, unlikable, lovable heroes remind me of Salinger’s, and I think he bears some of the same ambivalence toward his Jewish heritage—at a National Book Award banquet I once attended, Roth abjured the audience not to think of him or speak of him as a Jewish writer –a fact that infuriated me so much I refused to applaud when he accepted his prize. It seemed worse than ingratitude; like spitting publically in one’s grandfather’s face. Yet the perfection of his prose remains; this exquisite, angry, honest, bitter drop of a book. This is my way of applauding now.

Liz Rosenberg’s most recent book is Home Repair, a novel. She has been a National Book Awards judge twice, in 1998 and 2005.

David L. Ulin wrote:

Forget the stories. Or no ... don’t forget them completely, but set them to the side. Either way, the draw here is the title novella, which established Philip Roth’s reputation and made his name a household word. Published in 1959, when Roth was only 26, “Goodbye, Columbus” is an almost perfect piece of fiction: beautifully written, marked by loss and longing and the odd, bittersweet feeling of being on the cusp. Its narrator, Neil Klugman, is the first in a series of self-conscious Rothian protagonists, precursor to Portnoy, to Zuckerman and Kepesh. Yet Neil is both more and less than his successors – sweet in his way and inexperienced, already rejecting the emptiness of middle-class suburbia, although more reflexively reactive, not quite fully formed. It’s as if he represents Roth’s signature themes in embryo, all of them embedded in these pages like literary DNA.

“Goodbye, Columbus” is a love story, inasmuch as anything Roth has written can be called a love story, the saga of Neil’s summer infatuation with Brenda Patimkin, a Radcliffe student whose parents have escaped Newark for Short Hills. Moreso than Roth’s other work, it is a story of class, of aspiration, of assimilation and the power of money as social lubricant. The beauty of the novella lies in Neil’s unwitting naivete about the world in which he is moving, a world so distant from his own that it might as well be on the other side of the world. This is the point of the story, and its exquisite tension has everything to do with the fact that Roth understands this while his character doesn’t, which gives “Goodbye, Columbus” an unexpected wisdom, especially coming from a writer so young.

The five stories with which the novella comes packaged are interesting primarily for being Roth’s only short fiction to be available in book form. Of them, only “Defender of the Faith” holds up in its own right, with its portrait of a Jewish sergeant caught between his duty to the Army and his tenuous connection to the handful of fellow Jews under his command.

But setting the stories aside again, what is perhaps most interesting about “Goodbye, Columbus” is how the novella reflects – as if through a funhouse mirror – another, later Roth work, Everyman, a short novel published in 2006 that begins with the death of its nameless protagonist and then works backwards through his life. The idea, clearly, was to echo the medieval passion plays, to tell a universal story in the guise of a particular one. For me, however, what emerges most forcefully is the image of Neil Klugman, older, by turns more experienced and more beaten, as he reaches the end of the road.

That’s a measure of Roth’s longevity as a writer, but it also suggests the depth of his achievement, his ability to encapsulate the range of human experience in his books. Such a range begins with Goodbye, Columbus – which remains one of the few debuts I can think of to carry the weight of its author’s career, to resonate with the force of his mature work.

David L. Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times.

David Unger wrote:

Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, the novella by the same name and five short stories, was published in 1959. It’s a dead-pan humorous, satirical novel that captures perfectly the transition from urban (Newark, NJ) to suburban (Short Hills, NJ) America: from four family houses with alleyways to mansions with sprinklers and green lawns; from Workman’s Circle to Hadassah; from Ohrbach’s to Bonwit Teller; from chess to tennis and golf; from overcooked peas and carrots (kugel and gefilte fish) to sliced nova; from schlepping to jogging; from washing your own dishes to having maids cleaning up after you.

Suburban Brenda is beautiful, but myopic in more ways than one: her rebellions are minor and she, as a good Radcliffe girl might have been back then, loves comfort and money and is uninterested in fundamental change; Neil, her Newark lover, is slightly more rebellious, but hardly: there’s a self righteousness and self-absorption about him, a “holier than thou” and “he protests too much” attitude. Neil is sensitive to “colored people,” “Negroes” and “Negresses,” but his liberalism feels self-serving: good thoughts, noble actions, but he is not very interactive with “the other.” I guess what I am saying is that despite the gem-like perfection of Goodbye, Columbus, it feels slight and dated, and pale against 1950s' winners like Ellison’s Invisible Man, Malamud’s The Magic Barrel and Faulkner’s Collected Stories. But did I fail to mention Roth’s five short stories? My god, they are, still today, searing and brilliant! And they indicate why, some twenty-plus novels later, Roth may be arguably America’s greatest living writer.

Guatemalan-born David Unger is the author of Life in the Damn Tropics (2004) and the forthcoming story collection Ni chicha ni limonada. He has translated fourteen books of poetry and fiction from the Spanish.

ISBN: 9780679748267

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Louis Auchincloss for Pursuit of the Prodigal
  • Hamilton Basso for The Light Infantry Ball
  • Saul Bellow for Henderson the Rain King
  • Evan S. Connell, Jr. for Mrs. Bridge
  • William Faulkner for The Mansion
  • Mark Harris for Wake Up, Stupid
  • John Hersey for The War Lover
  • H.L. Humes for Men Die
  • Shirley Jackson for The Haunting of Hill House
  • Elizabeth Janeway for The Third Choice
  • James Jones for The Pistol
  • Warren Miller for The Cool World
  • James Purdy for Malcolm
  • Leo Rosten for The Return of H*Y*M*A*N* K*A*P*L*A*N* 
  • John Updike for The Poorhouse Fair
  • Robert Penn Warren for The Cave
  • Morris West for The Devil's Advocate

Fiction Judges that Year:

Kay Boyle, Brendan Gill, Alexander Laing, William Peden, Charles J. Rolo

The Year in Literature:

  • Advise and Consent by Allen Drury won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Saint-John Perse won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

This collection of six stories was the first book Philip Roth ever published. The title story was made into the 1969 film, Goodbye, Columbus, with Ali MacGraw and Richard Benjamin.

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