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Goodbye, Columbus : And Five Short Stories (Vintage International) Paperback – January 13, 1994
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From Publishers Weekly
In 1974's My Life as A Man Roth examines how a writer revises his reality, compiling two stories "by" one Peter Tarnopol and a third in which Tarnopol is the fictional protagonist. Vintage will simultaneously reissue Goodbye, Columbus , Roth's National Book Award-winning first novel, together in a new edition with five short stories.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"A masterpiece." —Newsweek
"Unlike those of us who come howling into the world, blind and bare, Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair, teeth, speaking coherently. He is skilled, witty, energetic and performs like a virtuoso." —Saul Bellow
"Superior, startling, incandescently alive." —The New Yorker
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Goodbye Columbus is a short novel about a summer love affair. The two main characters are in their early twenties but have little else in common. Neil lives with his aunt in Newark NJ in a neighborhood that was once predominantly Jewish and is now becoming racially integrated. Brenda’s family once lived in Newark but moved out of the city to Short Hills after her father got rich in the sink manufacturing business. Neil works in the public library and Brenda attends Radcliffe College. After a chance meeting Neil phones Brenda, she agrees to meet him, and their relationship begins.
In addition to Goodbye Columbus, there are five short stories which explore the tension between maintaining Jewish traditions and assimilating into post-war America.
Roth’s writing is powerful and economical. The dialogue drives the plot. There are some humorous moments (see especially “Epstein”) but for the most part these are serious stories of protagonists trying to make the best of bad circumstances.
As I read the book I found it increasingly difficult to care about the characters. Dishonest, profane, self-centered, superficial, and unfeeling are some of the adjectives that come to mind. Roth emphasizes the bad behavior and shortcomings of his creations in every story, and after a while it gets tiresome.
The three star rating acknowledges Roth’s skill as a writer, offset by the dearth of sympathetic characters. I highly recommend Roth’s “Patrimony”, the overlooked true story of his father’s battle with terminal cancer. The author treats his subject with love, not loathing.
This review is of the Kindle edition. As others have noted there are a number of transcription errors. I tend to miss or forget if there are a few, but this edition had too many to not notice all of them. I have removed one star for poor copy.
Philip Roth will always write about his generation of Jewish American. Specifically one generation removed from the European shtetl and raised in the semi enclosed world of poor to middle class ethnic New Jersey and who generally made it out as scholars or athletes.
Coming after a generation of Jewish writers who tended to romanticize all things Jewish, especially family life, his more realistic and complex portrayals would cause him much enmity within the Jewish community. This enmity he would turn into major themes within his future works. All this is in the future as Goodbye Columbus began its circulation.
Nowhere in any of these stories will Philip Roth take time to explain Jewish customs, the history of anti-Semitism or even linger on the subjects of the Holocaust. This later issue is an unspoken presence in two different stories: The Defender of the Faith and Eli the Fanatic. Roth takes as given that the reader is intelligent enough to understand how individuals can carry with them the burden and the strength that goes with their heritage. We are in part our culture, the question is not the details of our respective heritages but how much we choose or have the choice to express this relationship.
I speak in terms of heritage and culture as unmodified nouns rather than subject to specific adjectives. Neil, in the title novella, Goodbye Columbus is a story of love across the class divide. The conflict that will test the young love in this less than fatal Romeo and Juliette story is about how wealth can buy "Do Overs", not available to the working poor. That the two are Jewish provides context but is not the central fact of the story. In the short story Epstein, everything is about survival in middle school and nothing about religion. My point is that however much these stories are about a particular Jewish experience, they have analogs in a larger American world. In this case it is a largely white America but no less relevant 50 years after original publication.
Defender of the Faith has a Jewish sergeant, freshly reposted to America from the horrors of World War II in Europe. He heals his "infantry man's heart" even as he is preparing fresh recruits to go into the war in the Pacific. He is manipulated by a conniving soldier and in letting himself be used he finds himself being healed. This is a deftly told story. In the end, (+++spoiler alert+++)
The sergeant refuses to let the master manipulator abandon others who have grown to need his particular skill.
Philip Roth deserves your attention not because he has clever plots, or because you cannot guess where he is going in a story. He is a craftsman, using simple language to tell complex stories. We can feel how the Sunday school failed to contain the precociously minded child in the Conversion of the Jews, and how events ultimately take the boy to a place where no one could have anticipated. We can feel exactly how the kind hearted lawyer in Eli, the Fanatic reacts to the conflicting demands of his situation.
Roth leads us into complex imaginings and requires us to be aware and alert. Events are less important then the thought process. This is not passive reading. It is reading that will draw you in, and expects you to think to the next step and the ideas behind it, to the next idea.
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!”