“There is no friend as loyal as a book.”
- Ernest Hemingway


Philip Roth: Goodbye, Columbus

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jul 06, 2015
Category: Fiction

We spent the holiday weekend, as is our custom, in Ely, Minnesota. Fly to Minneapolis, drive North and West, then North again, and when the road ends and what’s ahead is water and then Canada, you’re in Ely. Loudest music: the loons on the lake. But we flew from Newark and returned there, and so, inevitably, I thought of this…

Writers don’t retire.

But Philip Roth did just that. At 79, he decided he was “finished” with fiction: “I don’t want to read it, I don’t want to write it, and I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. I dedicated my life to the novel. I studied them, I taught them, I wrote them, and I read them. At the exclusion of nearly everything else. It’s enough!”

Maybe you’ve read Roth. If so, you might have read, as teenage boys might under the covers with a flashlight, his “dirtiest” book, “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Or “My Life As a Man.”

But in the end, I’d lure you to Roth or remind you of his greatness with what he wrote at the beginning. His first book. The one in which we see a character who’s an outsider who wants in and who sees the way there through women. Maybe I love it because I so identify. But for the reasons it won the 1960 National Book Award for fiction … well, start with the first paragraph.

“The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses.” That’s Neil Klugman talking. He’s at a swimming pool. Brenda dives, swims, returns, takes her glasses. As she moves away, “she caught the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and flicked what flesh had been showing back where it belonged. My blood jumped.”

In 16 lines, we get the picture: young people, summer lust. In the lines that follow, the picture becomes more complex. Neil lives in Newark, with his Aunt Gladys and Uncle Max, in a crazy household where no one eats the same meal or at the same time. Brenda Patimkin lives in Short Hills — a suburb so alien to Gladys that she uses its phone book to prop up a table.

You know where the story will go. Neil, poor, graduate of Rutgers, working at the public library, dark and Semitic, ambitious and resentful. Brenda, rich, assimilated (she’s had a nose job), Radcliffe. In the heat of the summer, they’ll have a romance that’s largely fueled by lust.

Ah, summer love. At the pool, under water, Neil pulls down the top of Brenda’s swimsuit and her breasts pop out — like fish. The every night passion in the game room at her house. Soon Brenda and Neil have worked themselves into a frenzy. But no one sees it — the Patimkins just don’t think that way. Their lives are about work and sports, about healthy, public competition: tennis, basketball in the driveway, golf.

The deserted swimming pool, silver on a grey day. Long walks on suburban streets just a few hundred feet higher — but so much cooler — than the streets of Newark. Bowls of fruit in the Patimkins’ basement refrigerator. Roth’s pace and pitch are flawless. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

And, of course, The Conversation. It’s about love, it’s about a diaphragm, who can tell the difference? But one thing about a great writer — he wastes nothing. That diaphragm, like a revolver in Chekhov, will return in a later act, for Brenda will leave it home when she goes back to school and her mother will find it and all hell will break loose.

Yes, in 140 pages, the question has moved far beyond summer love to the real thing — terrible pun, and forgive me, but the rubber meets the road. The story gets resolved as we know it must. And more, it points to a future that Roth could barely imagine and that we know all about: the evolution of Neil into other first-person narrators who explore religion and status and striving in a remarkable body of work.

Philip Roth was 26 when he published “Goodbye, Columbus.” A great achievement at any point in a writer’s career, but as a first effort, at that tender age….and then to fill the rest of the book with five accomplished short stories….I feel like Aunt Gladys: it’s hot in here, I need to sit down with a cool drink.

Short takes

A nail-biting, true story of a French family in World War II

Heroes tend not to talk about their exploits, so no one told young Charles Kaiser what his French cousins did in World War II. It was a lot: André Boulloche coordinated the Resistance movements in the nine northern regions of France, and when he was captured, his sisters did all they could. The price was high: As the war was ending, their parents and brothers were taken to Germany and killed. Now, a lifetime later, Kaiser excavates their story. More: in a mere 230 pages, he also offers a capsule history of the war, with telling anecdotes that were new to me. Like: Hitler slept through D-Day. The French police weren’t asked to arrest children, but in 1942 they sent 4,051 to Germany, where they were immediately gassed. Bicycles cost as much as cars. Men pedaled to charge generators to keep the lights on. Heat? A memory. “The Cost of Courage” is well named. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

‘Pot Luck’ won’t get you high. It may just improve your health.

Richard Lewis spent two decades in charge of the Absolut advertising account — he invented those classic Absolut ads. He’s taught Branding at Yale and NYU. You may recall his book, Why Hire Jennifer? Now he’s back, with an equally accessible book: “Pot Luck: Why Marijuana is Today’s Medicine.” Huh? His reason: 23 states have legalized medical marijuana, 4 have gone further and legalized recreational marijuana. And there are hundreds of books. His aim: the simplest and most factual. In 200 pages, with big print, many illustrations and contributions from doctors and patients, he pretty much does that. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

A first-time director to watch, an actor’s breakthrough performance

Lou Howe is married to my favorite and only stepdaughter, but if I didn’t know him, I’d still be knocked out by “Gabriel,” the film he wrote and directed. Rory Culkin is devastatingly compelling as a damaged kid so desperate to fix his life that he stalks a long-lost girlfriend. “Gabriel,” a little film that launches two careers, is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. The website lists other cities, streaming opportunities and much more objective praise.

You are falling into a deep, deep sleep

Jason Clement is the first engineer to be inducted into the Sony Samurai Society, the most prestigious honor that a Sony employee can be awarded. When someone of this stature creates an app and “Zen” is in the title, I pay attention. Not that I grasp the tech: “Zen Tunes combines Isochronic tones with monaural and binaural beats.” Translation: Zen Tunes lets you create a custom mix of sounds, set volumes individually, and then store your personalized “mixes.” Result: “brainwave entrainment.” Translation: Your brain eases into a deep state of relaxation or sleep. Who would like this? Insomniacs. Travelers. Dreamers. Aficiondoes of the new and cool. Deep dive here.