Philip Roth: Goodbye, Columbus
Published: Jul 06, 2015
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.