This past week Philip Roth’s first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959; National Book Award), celebrated fifty years. Those of you who’ve been followed my blog last year know that he is one of my favorite authors, though I’ve really only read novels written since The Ghost Writer. I was very curious how his work would feel at its inception. Also, this being Roth’s only collection of short stories, how good would this master novelist be in that form?
The book is really one novella, Goodbye, Columbus, and five short stories: “The Conversion of the Jews,” ‘Defender of the Faith,” “Epstein,” “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings,” and “Eli, the Fanatic.” I particularly enjoyed reading them after reading about their stand-ins in Roth’s later Zuckerman books. Well, it’s easy to see why a young man, after writing this kind of work, would find himself welcomed by literary recluses. All of the stories are incredibly well written, the kind of writing one would expect from a much older writer, one who’d learned control through maturity. But, truth be told, probably the most conspicuous difference between Roth at twenty-five and Roth at seventy-five is the absence of death as a theme in the former. The skill and many Rothian signatures are already there. Saul Bellow expressed it best: “Unlike those of us who come howling into the world, blind and bare, Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair, teeth, speaking coherently.”
My favorite of the five short stories was “Defender of the Faith” first published in The New Yorker in 1959. It must be one of the more iconoclastic pieces, one that was surely uncomfortable for the Jewish community. It takes place at the end of World War II, in the brief period after fighting in Europe had ceased but before fighting in the Pacific came to its shocking end. Sergeant Nathan Marx, after fighting for a year in Europe, is back on U.S. soil in Missouri, supervising training.
In one of his groups are three young Jewish boys, all of whom breathe a sigh of relief when they think their new Sergeant is also a Jew. Though he tries not to let on, through a few slips of the tongue, the trainees find out he is a Jew, and they hope that he will find a way to allow them to go to shul on Friday nights when they usually have to clean the barracks. Somewhat resentful, though understanding, he finds a way to grant them leave to go to the synagogue. Feeling a bit like a part of his past is missing, he decides to attend with them and swears he hears one of them say something like “Let the goyim clean the floors.” The favors build, as does the guilt he feels when he reprimands the supplicant who calls him anti-Semitic.
It’s a very interesting piece, especially considering the timing. Were Jews willing to allow someone to depict the gradual recognition of Jewish rites (and rights) as the more pejorative “sense of entitlement”? Of course, Roth doesn’t suggest that all Jews feel a sense of entitlement and feel that anyone who denies this is anti-Semitic. But at that time, to even bring it up. Risky and, now, Rothian.
Goodbye, Columbus was published first in The Paris Reviewin 1959. On its surface, it’s a simple love story doomed from the start because of an unlikely pairing. Neil Klugman is a college grad who lives with his Aunt and Uncle in Newark while he works at the Newark Public Library. An invitee at a club swimming pool, he meets Brenda Patimkin, a resident of suburban Short Hills, still a posh spot to live. In a burst of courage, Neil introduces himself. Brenda is just unconventional enough to like his advances. Roth depicts Neil’s drive to Short Hills nicely:
Once I’d driven out of Newark, past Irvington and the packed-in tangle of railroad crossings, switchmen shacks, lumberyards, Dairy Queens, and used-car lots, the night grew cooler. It was, in fact, as though the hundred and eighty feet that the suburbs roase in altitude above Newark brought one closer to heaven, for the sun itself became bigger, lower, and rounder, and soon I was driving past long lawns which seemed to be twirling water on where themselves, and past houses where no one sat on stoops, where lights were on but no windows open, for those inside, refusing to share the very texture of life with those of us outside, regulated with a dial the amounts of moisture that were allowed access to their skin.
The Patimkins welcome Neil to the home. Even Brenda’s younger sister Julie and her older brother Ron are kind to the stranger: “Before I’d even reached them, Ron stepped forward and since the Diaspora.” Still, it’s uncomfortable, and Roth’s scenes are filled with ways to depict the discomfort. Neil himself is the cause of much of the discomfort because he wants to read into everything, even critiquing the family portraits.
On the wall hung three colored photo-paintings; they were the kind which, regardless of the subjects, be they vital or infirm, old or youthful, are characterized by bud-cheeks, wet lips, pearly teeth, and shiny, metallized hair. The subjects in this case were Ron, Brenda, and Julie at about ages fourteen, thirteen, and two. Brenda had long auburn hair, her diamond-studded nose, and no glasses; all combined to make her look a regal thirteen-year-old who’d just gotten smoke in her eyes. Ron was rounder and his hairline was lower, but that of spherical objects and lined courts twinkled in his boyish eyes. Poor little Julie was lost in the photo-painter’s Platonic idea of childhood; her tiny humanity was smothered somewhere back of gobs of pink and white.
Again, the story is more nuanced than what perhaps sounds like a less dramatic West Side Story. It’s not all about class, though that plays a large role. Thankfully, I didn’t have to look too hard for another Roth signature: the comic rant. This one comes from Mr. Patimkin’s brother (who runs a light-bulb plant; Mr. Patimkin’s sink manufacturing plant is much more successful—yes, another Roth signature: the tell-tale / ironic managerial jobs of the rising Jewish population). At a wedding, the uncle gets tipsy and confessional to Neil:
“I’ll tell you something, one good thing happened to me in my whole life. Two maybe. Before I came back from overseas I got a letter from my wife—she wasn’t my wife then. My mother-in-law found an apartment for us in Queens. Sixty-two fifty a month it cost. That’s the last good thing that happened.”
“What was the first?”
“You said two things,” I said.
“I don’t remember. I say two because my wife tells me I’m sarcastic and a cynic. That way maybe she won’t think I’m such a wise guy.”
The rant continues sporadically through the next several pages, nicely punctuating the themes while providing rhythm and flow to the prose. It also pleased me to no end that Roth knew even then how to make his readers smile at discomfort while taking deep breaths at the soft revelations.