Philip Roth won the National Book Award for Goodbye, Columbus, the story which gives this collection of stories its title. The story traces the love relationship of Neil, a young college boy, and Brenda, the spoilt but love-starved daughter of a wealthy manufacturer.
But here, oh here, is fun and perfection and a goddamn point! Highly, HIGHLY recommended. For everybody.
The book is named after the novella, which is a love story of sorts, taut with the pulls of class distinction and the couples' different ways of life. The young couple, from accross this class divide, struggle to have a normal courtship, but a power tussle continues to strain their relations. The relationship is further pressured by the conservative Jewish sentiments. Perhaps if I had never watched hindi movies with the same cliched theme, I might have been able to appreciate the story better. But it turns out that I have grown up on such movies like an average Indian, and find nothing remarkable in Mr. Roth's tale.
However, the five stories that follow almost make-up for the interest that the novella could not generate.Roth has outlined the confusion of a Jew in a modern society very well, sometimes by exaggeration. Particularly noteworthy stories were "The Conversion of the Jews," "Defender of the Faith," and "Eli, the Fanatic." Mr. Roth was widely criticised by the Jewish community who did not find the portrayal of certain Jewish characters in the book very appealing, especially in his story "Defender of faith", where a trio of devout jew draftees in the army exploit a Jewish sergeant on religious grounds.
It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that a talent for efficient cruelty also seems to have been a talent of the younger Roth himself. The last scenes of "Goodbye, Columbus" are devastating, but the last lines of some of the other stories, particularly "You Can't Tell A Man by the Song He Sings" and "Defender of the Faith" take just a sentence to cut right to the quick. Not that there aren't some stories here than hang a little looser: the tone throughout "Epstein" is comically tragic, or tragically comic, and then there's "Eli, the Fanatic." A bit of a departure for a writer that I mostly think of, for all of his marvelous writing, as a realist, this story is both more fantastical and, at the same time, to be a more obvious literary construction than most of Roth's work. Roth makes this story of a Jewish yeshiva populated with Holocaust survivors at odds with its modern, suburban Jewish neighbors seem believable without making it necessarily realistic, which is perhaps about as high a compliment as you can pay a writer. But it also seems to prefigure a lot of the contradictions about Jewish life in the United States that Roth would write about during the next fifty or so years. In some ways, that might be said of this entire book: in the same way that "Dubliners" sketched out the themes that Joyce would chase down for the rest of his writing life, Roth seems to be offering a map of the territory that was to explore in this short, early work. Characters walk difficult lines between assimilation and identity, and between identity and individuality, and in "Eli, the Fanatic," these hard choices are presented as unmistakably literal. Something tells me that Nathan Englander, whose work deals with the same themes using something like the same approach, once fell in love with it. If that's true, he can hardly be blamed. In an age when lots of story collections feel sort of padded, everything here feels essential and is, from this reader's perspective, just top-notch. A classic.
Anyway, author Philip Roth died a month ago and I decided to read some of his stuff. “Goodbye Columbus” was a long (138 pages) short story and GC plus 5 other stories were published together, winning a National Book Award in 1960. I remember the story as a bit racy for its day, but at almost 50 years (the book, not me) the story doesn’t seem to hold up that well. The movie’s rating history tells it all – it was originally R and later re-rated PG.
Neil and Brenda meet at the pool; she asks him to hold her sunglasses as she dives; he’s in love before she takes her first bounce. She comes from money and is college bound. He graduated three years ago, lives with his aunt who cooks and cleans all the time, and he works at the library. Mom and Dad love Brenda and older brother Ron and will do anything for their offspring, even tolerate Neil at their dining table. They have a nice summer together.
Finally, a quote from Roth, which has nothing to do with the story, or maybe it does: “A Jewish man with parents alive is a fifteen-year-old boy, and will remain a fifteen-year-old boy until they die!”
In the main novella, hero Neil Klugman is home in Newark after two years in the army. He has finished college, is working in the library, and lives with his Aunt Gladys and Uncle Max in the old neighborhood. When Neil falls in love with Brenda Patimkin, the prototypical Jewish American Princess whose family has moved to the suburbs up the hill, Roth begins the examination of American Jewish life that continues through many of his books.
The title is a reference to Ohio State University Seniors saying goodbye to college, goodbye to Columbus, Ohio, but it also signifies growing up and leaving youth behind. Neil and Brenda’s relationship demonstrates the intensity of first love, as well as the disillusionment and emotional tempering that result.
The five short stories that follow vary in force and effect. . . .
Full review posted on Rose City Reader>.
I found two other stories highly readable: Defender of the Faith, where Roth portrays Jews as self-seeking, lying and manipulative; and Eli, the Fanatic, where a lawyer is hired by an assimilated Jewish community to confront the director of a newly established Orthodox yeshiva (Jewish religious institution).
Goodbye, Columbus - 5/5
The Conversion of the Jews - 1/5
Defender of the Faith - 4/5
Epstein - 2/5
You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings - 1/5
Eli, the Fanatic - 4/5