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?!)