Aversions and aspirations: Philip Roth, Goodbye Columbus

Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus. Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford, pp. 129-234

Among the comments to my previous post on this collection of stories was a query about the authors included in it. Here’s a list (apart from Eudora Welty and William Styron, posted about already, and the subject of today’s post, Philip Roth):

Ernest N. Gaines, A Long Day in November (1963). I couldn’t finish this: too depressing. A feckless husband treats his wife badly; the narration from his young son was too painful for me to read during these already distressing times.

Stanley Elkin, The Making of Ashenden (1973). A surreal story in the vein of Donald Barthelme or Robert Coover, but without the wit or charm. It ends with a graphic, four-letter-word account of the protagonist having messy sex with a she-bear…

Peter Taylor, The Old Forest (1979). This was better. A young man, engaged to be marry, is involved in a car crash. His passenger flees the scene – she’s not the fiancée. Will the wedding be called off when the news hits the papers? An interesting, low-key story set in Memphis, 1937 explores themes of class, sex and the struggles of women then to exert any kind of power in a man’s world.

Cynthia Ozick’s and Jane Smiley’s stories will be the subjects of later posts. I haven’t yet read the remaining three, by Joyce Carol Oates, Barry Hannah and Edwidge Dandicat. If I like them I’ll post about them, too.

Now on with today’s story.

Granta Book of the American Long Story cover Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth (1933-2018) is one of those ‘long stories’ discussed by Richard Ford in his introduction (see my post about this HERE) that was originally described as a novella when it appeared in the Paris Review in 1959. One of several in this collection to deal with the lives of Jewish people in America, it was written when Roth was only 26 – and this is reflected in the story’s central character: an intelligent young man who doesn’t yet know what to do with his life.

Neil Klugman lives in an unfashionable part of Newark, NJ (Roth’s native city), favoured by Jewish families of his social class, with his aunt and uncle. After graduating from Rutgers and serving in the military he’s drifted into a tedious job in the city’s public library. He falls for Brenda, a girl from the posh suburbs; her family are nouveau riche – they too lived once in Newark, but her father’s plumbing business is thriving and they now live a very different life from Neil’s. It’s all swimming at the country club, tennis and sports. Only a vestige of their humble origins survives in the shabby furniture and detritus hidden in an obscure attic of their present swanky home.

The narrative is driven by Neil’s conflicting emotions about Brenda. She’s about to return to prestigious Radcliffe in Boston (formerly a separate women’s college, now fully integrated with Harvard). He finds himself in love with her, and they have a lot of sex, but he can’t suppress feelings of irritation with her lifestyle and capricious, complacent manner.

Things reach a crisis point when she returns to Radcliffe and invites him to stay with her in a hotel nearby during the Jewish holiday. She makes a disclosure that causes him to question her love and commitment to him. She’s a spoilt young woman and he maybe realises her defects aren’t just his class prejudice or inverted snobbery.

The prose is remarkably assured for such a young writer at the start of his career. There are some lively exchanges written with verve, seen especially in the contorted syntax and (maybe a little too stereotypically ‘middle-aged Jewish woman’) world view of his aunt Gladys.

Some of Neil’s dialogue with Brenda is also witty and sharp, but also reveals character and tensions. When she asks him if he intends making a career at the library – trying to goad him into taking a more socially acceptable, stimulating (and lucrative) direction – he retorts that he’s ‘not planning anything’, and hasn’t done for the three years since he left the army. He’s ‘not a planner’:

After all the truth I’d suddenly given her, I shouldn’t have ruined it for myself with that final lie. I added, ‘I’m a liver.’

‘I’m a pancreas,’ she said.

‘I’m a –’

And she kissed the absurd game away; she wanted to be serious.

These signs early in the relationship that they aren’t entirely compatible are signified with some subtlety throughout. For example, Brenda’s attempts to control Neil reappear when she insists they go to a school sports track so she can run – and wants Neil to run as well. When they arrive, she points out that he looks like her – ‘only bigger’ – because they’re dressed in similar preppy sports clothes:

…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.

In a preface to the thirtieth anniversary edition of Goodbye, Columbus wrote that it was about:

…the rites and taboos of his clan…their aversions, their aspirations, their fears of deviance and defection, their embarrassments and ideas of success.

The title refers to the graduation song played on a record by Brenda’s brother, who’d just left Ohio University at Columbus, but also less directly to the Columbus who was the first European to discover America. Neil lives as an insider in his community, but is also an outsider in the world inhabited by the likes of Brenda and her family. He’s slowly accreting experience and maturity through abrasive contacts like those with this precocious, selfish young woman, coming to realise which world he wants to belong to and what role he could play in it.

A final note about language. In an early flirtatious meeting with Brenda at the country club she’s ‘treading’ water with him in the swimming pool. ‘I treaded unobtrusively as I could’, the narrator says. ‘Treaded’ as past tense of ‘tread’ (water)? I suppose ‘trod’ sounds odd in this context. (What’s the plural of computer mouse?!)



10 thoughts on “Aversions and aspirations: Philip Roth, Goodbye Columbus

  1. Ha! Treaded!
    I can’t think of an alternative except to leave it out. They were treading water, staying close, flirting, why do we need to know that he was being unobtrusive?
    (Hark at me, giving advice to the great P. Roth!)

    • Yeah, it’s one of those linguistic puzzles that occur as a result of our inconsistent grammatical structures (strong and weak verbs, etc.) I agree about that unnecessary adverb, too. It’s difficult to know, furthermore, how else one can tread water – it’s hardly OBtrusive, since it all happens underwater. Seals, however, do it even more effortlessly than us humans, when they ‘bottle’ in the sea with just their heads and tops of their shoulders showing, as I posted about such a sighting recently.

  2. Hmmmmm. The ones you write about in brief don’t sound very appealing, that’s for sure! As for Roth, I’ve read little of him (The Plot Against America is the only one I think, which I *did* enjoy). However, Mr. K. is a huge fan of the Goodbye, Columbus movie. I have issues with it because I can’t stand Richard Benjamin!!!

    • Karen: I meant to mention the film in my post – thanks for the reminder. I’m not a fan of R. Benjamin, either. I had a Roth phase some years ago, and read much of his stuff from his mid-late period, then he seemed to go off the boil.

  3. Very interesting review as alwys, Simon. I must admit I had a little trepidation about a Philip Roth post, as he’s one of those writers I’ve tended to avoid, probably because I read Portnoy’s Complaint at the wrong stage of my life (when I finally tried Roth again many years later, with I Married A Communist, I thought he was a brilliant writer & quite liked the book). I have read Good-bye, Columbus as well but at such a young age that the class & ethnic issues would have gone straight over my head. In fact, I probably read it as a movie tie-in!
    It was very interesting to me to compare my reaction to Roth (at best, “he’s a great writer but his subjects are unfamiliar to me”) to that of one of my former colleagues who was from an urban, east coast Jewish family. To him, Roth was “the writer,” the guy who chronicled the authentic American experience. How could I NOT read him? To me, on the other hand (small town southern, from a couple of centuries of honorable white trash) Faulkner filled that role. We each instinictively headed for a writer who reflected the experience of our respective tribe. Isn’t tribalism interesting? Do you have similar cultural & geographic divisions with U.K. writers and their readership?
    Your anthology sounds very interesting, although neither Gaines nor Elkin would be for me at this time, or, possibly ever. I went through a Peter Taylor phase several years ago. Although I found him a bit too mannered at times, I really enjoyed the poetry of his writing and his ability to create atmospher in his stories. I look forward to your remaining reviews from the anthology, as I’m very fond of Jane Smiley, can take/leave Barry Hannah and am on the fence about Ozick (the one novel I’ve read I didn’t like).
    As for the grammar — I fear to tread, so to speak, on this tricky ground and will weight for others to arrive at a consensus!

    • I just responded to Kaggsy about my enjoyment of Roth’s middle-period novels, including IM a Communist and American Pastoral. Not so the later ones. Interesting point about being drawn to our own ‘tribe’ authors. I think until the mid-20C such divisions in Britain were almost entirely class-based – so V Woolf, Vita S-W, Ivy C-Burnett & co (even some of those names are a giveaway) were very much from and about the upper middle classes (though Ivy CB is perhaps a more complex case). And VW married into a Jewish family…EM Forster was concerned with such divisions, E Waugh less so – more snobbish maybe. Then things shifted as more British writers from different ethnic origins became prominent, most recently including the likes of Zadie Smith. There have always been popular authors as well who wrote in English but weren’t British: Americans like HJ, Europeans like Conrad. Then there was HG Wells – and Orwell – with a very different take on class. So: no simple answer. As for grammar and erratic spelling/syntax – what a mein feeled!

  4. Haven’t read the book, Simon, but have seen the film. I think you’re a bit harsh on Richard Benjamin! He was actually very good in Diary of a Mad Housewife – I still cringe when I think about his oily delivery of his character’s ‘How about a little ol’ roll in the hay?’ line.

    • I haven’t seen the film but would like to – maybe my opinion of RB is unfounded; I’m struggling to think of anything I’ve seen him in. I imagine the film is a sort of working class version of The Graduate. Will have to find out.

  5. I have read Portnoy’s Complaint (a good while ago, it feels like it was when I was discovering Iris Murdoch and thinking myself sophisticated, but surely not) but I’m just not keen on the Big American Men (Cheever, etc.) and their novels about infidelity. I don’t fancy those short stories either although two of the remaining three pique my interest …

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