Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth

"Since when do Jewish people live in Short Hills?  They couldn't be real Jews believe me." 
"They're real Jews," I said.
"I'll see it I'll believe it."
Readers of this blog and followers of my twitter feed may be aware that I recently moved to Columbus, Ohio.  MPorcius Fiction Log super-fans may recall that I read Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint in my college days, and a second time in 2014, and enjoyed it.  So, when I saw this handsome paperback copy of Goodbye, Columbus among the vintage paperbacks at one of the Half Price Books locations here in Columbus, I felt I had to have it.  Like Marcel in Swann's Way imagining what a town is like based on its name, I often try to predict what a book will be based on its title.  I theorized that Goodbye, Columbus was a novel about a Jewish guy who was raised in Columbus, OH and left to become a literary writer in New York or a screenwriter in Los Angeles and was amazed by how different attitudes about sex and family life are on the coasts.  Would he embrace these "modern" values for good, or just dabble in sexual promiscuity and careerism and then return home?

These idle predictions of mine generally are not very close to the mark (remember when I thought Neal Barrett's Kelwin was going to be full of thrilling sex and violence?) and this prediction was no better than usual.  Goodbye, Columbus isn't even a novel, but a novella (97 pages in my 1963 Bantam paperback); this volume is rounded out to 216 pages by five short stories.

Goodbye, Columbus is set in my home state of New Jersey--in fact our narrator Neil Krugman, who works at the Newark public library, is, as I am, an alumnus of Rutgers University, though he had classes in Newark and I attended classes in New Brunswick.  (I didn't live on campus, but some 35 miles away with my parents, who weren't yet interested in financing my escape from them; I had to wait until grad school to get that kind of financing.)  As I suppose we expect from post-war 20th century American fiction, 1959's Goodbye, Columbus, is about sex, class and race.  The plot follows Neil's summer romance, but perhaps more interesting than the protagonist's sexual relationship are the work's themes of the question of what constitutes an "authentic" Jew, hostility to the wealthy, and the disdain city dwellers have for suburbanites and vice versa.

At his cousin's country club Neil, 23, meets college girl Brenda Patimkin and they begin dating.  The Patimkins own a business with a vast warehouse "in the heart of the Negro section of Newark" that produces sinks, but they live in Short Hills, a tony suburb.  Roth contrasts the Patimkins, Jews who achieved financial success and left Newark for a big suburban house, black servants and country club memberships, with the Krugmans, a less affluent family who still reside in Newark.  Air-conditioning serves as one of the symbols of the Patimkin's affluence and their social distance from the Krugmans.  The story takes place in the summer, and Roth reminds us again and again how hot it is.  Neil's parents are spending the season in dry Arizona because of their asthma, while Neil's aunt and uncle, with whom he is living, have to sit outside their Newark apartment to escape the heat of indoors.  Brenda's wealthy suburban family, on the other hand, has air conditioning, a fact of which we are reminded repeatedly.

The Patimkins are friendly and accommodating, even inviting Neil to stay with them during his two weeks of vacation from the library.  To me, it seemed like a central thread of the story was the temptation of Neil; would he abandon his relatively lower status family, the city and his government job, for the wealth and prestige, the career in private business, and the suburban comfort of the Patimkins? The Patimkins strongly suggest that if Neil marries Brenda he will be offered a job at Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks ("Any Size--Any Shape.")  While the Krugmans are unhealthy and bookish, the hearty Patimkins are obsessed with sports, and there are numerous scenes in which Brenda and her siblings convince Neil to competitively run, swim, and play table tennis--is he becoming one of them?

While Neil is tempted by the Patimkin lifestyle, he himself is a tempter, wheedling and cajoling Brenda into satisfying his sexual desires.  Neil (like Portnoy in Portnoy's Complaint) can be quite aggressive sexually, and badgers Brenda into going to Manhattan to get a diaphragm; he says he will enjoy sex with her more if she uses one.  Brenda does his bidding, but the device triggers the crisis that ends their relationship when, after Brenda has returned to school in Boston, Mrs. Patimkin finds it while tidying up Brenda's room.  Neil, who has never really felt like he has belonged among the Patimkins, and has always feared Brenda's rejection, accuses Brenda of deliberately leaving the diaphragm in a place where her family would find it.  Neil tells Brenda she has to chose between her family and Neil, and she chooses her family in terms that make her seem materialistic: "They're still my parents.  They did send me to the best schools, didn't they?  They have given me everything I wanted, haven't they?"

This is a smooth economical story full of interesting stuff.  We have Roth's negative portrayal of the wealthy: bubbling under Neil's narrative is a hostility to the rich and Roth's suggestion that the Patimkin's wealth is ill-gotten, somehow dirty.  Most people I meet seem to think anybody who has more money than they do stole it, or somehow enjoy unfair advantages that enabled them to get it--even the millionaires I encounter are always decrying billionaires for their alleged cheating and unfair advantages, and of course every time you open the newspaper or turn on the TV you'll hear rich people enthusiastically denouncing other rich people's wealth.  Goodbye, Columbus fits comfortably in this shopworn genre.

One vector of attack Roth employs to make this point is Brenda's little sister, ten-year-old Julie, a spoiled brat who loves to play sports and games, but apparently only because everybody lets her win.  When Neil is left to babysit her he refuses to let her win at ping pong and prevents her from cheating, so she throws a fit, abandoning the game when Neil is on the brink of scoring the winning point. I have to assume that Julie here represents wealthy people in general, that Roth is arguing that society's winners only succeed because they cheat.

Goodbye, Columbus first appeared
in the Fall-Winter 1958-9 issue
of The Paris Review
More directly, Mr. Patimkin admits to Neil that to succeed in business "you need a little of the gonif in you."  Neil translates this as "thief," and Patimkin endorses our hero's definition.  "You know more than my own kids.  They're goyim, my kids...."

Roth also covers the sour grapes angle, hinting that the Patimkins cannot truly enjoy their wealth, even that it stifles them.  The oft-mentioned air conditioning prevents them from opening the windows, for example.  Neil discovers that Mr. Patimkin has spent a vast sum on a bar with every "kind and size of glass, ice bucket, decanter, mixer, swizzle stick, shot glass, pretzel bowl" and dozens of bottles of booze, but that none of the bottles have been opened, because nobody in the family drinks or has friends who drink.  And then there is Brenda's older brother Ron, who has to discard his hopes of being a gym teacher and work at the sink factory because of "responsibilities."

As the spoily back cover of the book tells prospective readers, Goodbye, Columbus is not a love story; Neil is primarily attracted to Brenda's body.  But I think another thing that attracts Neil to Brenda, and one of the vicarious pleasures the story offers to readers who envy the wealthy, is the chance to "stick it" to the rich.  Brenda complains that Neil is often "nasty" to her because he resents her family's wealth, though at times she seems to find this nastiness attractive (just as those internet pick up artist guys would predict!)  I've already pointed out how Neil refused to give in to little Julie's demands and defeated her at table tennis; Roth encourages the reader to see Julie and Brenda as different forms of the same person--the girls dress alike, and sometimes sing together, for example, and, like Julie, Brenda loves sports and games and is accustomed to winning ribbons in tennis and horseback riding.  The evening of the same day that Neil humiliates Julie at table tennis, he has sex with Brenda for the first time, and directly likens his sexual conquest to defeating Julie at ping pong:
How can I describe loving Brenda?  It was so sweet, as though I'd finally scored that twenty-first point.  
The fact that "When I began to unbutton her dress she resisted me," further makes Neil's sexual relationship with Brenda seem like a competition, like the table tennis match, one in which he has proven himself the winner over one of his social superiors.

The epigraph I chose for this blog post, a section of dialogue between Neil and his aunt, like Mr. Patimkin's strange claim that his own children are goyim, explicitly brings up the idea of Jewish authenticity--in 20th century America, who is a "real" Jew?  Are any of the characters in the story authentic Jews?  Neil and Brenda are totally secularized--when frustrated Brenda cries out "Jesus Christ!", and when asked by Brenda's mother, who is very active at her synagogue, if he is orthodox or conservative, Neil, who never goes to temple and doesn't mind working on Rosh Hashanah, can't come up with a straight answer.

Even though Brenda's father, with his Yiddish, and mother, with her piety, see themselves as authentic Jews, Roth takes pains to paint the Patimkin family as essentially inauthentic.  On their first date Brenda tells Neil she had a nose job, and I certainly got the impression that all the tennis and horseriding and scenes at the country club were supposed to make us think of the Patimkins as wannabe WASPs.  Then there is Ron, a skilled athlete who went to Ohio State (here's our Columbus, Ohio connection) who also got a nose job and who over the course of the novella abandons his dream of becoming a gym teacher to take up a management job at his father's plant, a job we see he is totally unsuited for.

It is possible that Roth is asking the question of who is an authentic Jew without providing an answer,  or that his answer is that nobody in 20th century America can truly be an authentic Jew, but I am going to go out on a limb here and propose the theory that Roth's story argues that being a true adherent of Jewish tradition is not about maintaining centuries-old language or millennia-old religious rituals, but identifying with and trying to help the downtrodden.  Which brings us to the topic of race in Goodbye, Columbus.

A film of Goodbye, Columbus was released in 1969;
I have not seen it
There are several black minor characters in the novella, and a minor white character (John McKee, a man who dresses well and thus represents the rich or those who aspire to be rich) who also works at the library and complains about how blacks ruin the public housing the white taxpayers provide them and vandalize library books and masturbate in the stacks while looking at art books.  Our narrator not only pokes fun at this colleague and his views, but identifies with and defends "Negroes."  When Brenda's family asks Neil to babysit Julie, Neil tells us that "I felt like Carlota [the Patimkin's black maid]."  A young "colored boy" (we never learn his name) comes regularly to the library to look at art books, in particular a volume of Gauguin reproductions, and Neil puts his job on the line when he lies to a white library patron to keep him from borrowing the Gauguin book.  Neil even has a dream in which he and the boy are companions on a sailing ship.

While Neil champions and identifies with blacks, the Patimkins, who employ black domestics at home and many black men at the factory, treat them as subordinates.  I suspect we are meant to contrast a scene at the factory in which Mr. Patimkin and hapless Ron order their black employees around with a scene in the library in which Neil talks with the young art lover about Gauguin, treating him, more or less, as if he is an equal.

In the same way that the inauthenticity of the Patimkins is signalled early on (page 9) by the revelation of those nose jobs, I think Roth signals how important characters' dealings with blacks should be to our assessment of them even earlier (page 5), when Neil calls Brenda to ask for that first date:
"What's your name?" she said.
"Neil Klugman.  I held your glasses at the board, remember?"
She answered me with a question of her own, one, I'm sure, that is an embarrassment to both the homely and the fair.  "What do you look like?"
"I'm . . . dark."
"Are you a Negro?"
An interesting nuance to the way Roth addresses this topic is that while Neil is the character with the most sympathy for blacks, it seems like he also has the least experience with them; the Patimkins deal with blacks almost everyday, and McKee suggests that Neil's cavalier attitude about the housing projects is the result of his not living near any of them.

Another wrinkle: the portrait Roth paints of blacks in the story is not exactly a flattering one.  The "colored" characters don't have much agency or personality, they seem to be there to provide an opportunity for us to distinguish between the good whites and the bad whites, you might even call them pawns in white vs white or Jew vs Jew status games.  In the same way Roth has Mr. Patimkin, the businessman, liken businesspeople to gonifs, and reproduces a letter written by Mr. Patimkin that is full of odd spellings and punctuation, Roth puts evidence of black dysfunction in the mouth of the Gauguin-loving little boy, the most well-developed black character.  The child not only pronounces "art book" as "heart book" and "Gauguin" as "Mr. Go-again," but engages in conversations with Neil like this:
"Who took these pictures?" he asked me.
"Gauguin.  He didn't take them, he painted them.  Paul Gauguin.  He was a Frenchman."
"Is he a white man or a colored man?"
"He's white."
"Man," the boy smiled, chuckled almost, "I knew that.  He don't take pictures like no colored man would.  He's a good picture taker...."
One reason the child likes Gauguin is that the Tahiti depicted by Gauguin appears to be a place of peace, evidently unlike the African-American Newark neighborhood where he lives: "These people, man, they sure does look cool.  They ain't no yelling or shouting here, you could just see it."  When Neil asks the boy why he doesn't get a library card and borrow the book, he admits that a nice book wouldn't be safe where he lives: "What you keep telling me take that book home for?  At home somebody dee-stroy it."

Goodbye, Columbus is a good story, thought-provoking and fun, full of sex and jokes and all the race and class stuff I've been talking about (and just as much stuff about the relationships between men and women and between parents and children that I haven't talked about.)  The writing is deft, with vivid little details, but never so much description that it drags.  Definitely worth a look.

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