Evan's Reviews > Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories

Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories by Philip Roth
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Jul 01, 09

bookshelves: 2009-reads, my-faves, yearning, roth, dumpster-rescues, __in-my-collection, jewish
Read in March, 2009

"Curiously, the darkness seemed to have something to do with Harriet, Ron's intended, and I thought for a time that it was simply the reality of Harriet's arrival that had dramatized the passing of time: we had been talking about it and now suddenly it was here — just as Brenda's departure would be here before we knew it." -Goodbye, Columbus

How often do I think of the passing of time in this way, as Roth describes it in this poignant, wistful and utterly beautiful book. "Goodbye, Columbus" already shows a master's hand in his debut. It's not about a love affair or class and social differences so much as it is about the passing of time. The love affair, which is supposed to be so ecstatic, is tinged constantly with the sad realization of its ending. The whole story is pervaded by a sense of inevitability and loss. That the outcome can be nothing but loss. It's as if the loss has already happened.

The sense of place, of the arid stasis of dependency, the outsider, the fish out of water...all captured so perfectly.

Some will likely fixate, wrongheadedly IMO, on the dated elements (eg., the "colored boy", the diaphragm, the parental shock over premarital sex)... So be it.

The part that really brought tears to my eyes was when Brenda's brother, Ron, the clueless athlete being seemingly ushered into a marriage to please all parties, listens to a record album of his glory days as a basketball star. Again, the sense of something bygone, the glory days behind one already at such a young age. Now hustled into the banal mandates of social expectation. Ron laying on the bed, drinking in the last of his youth for the last time. This moved me so much. I could hear the record album; Roth describes it so perfectly. Like everything else in the novella, it flies off the page for me.

But I initially delved into this svelte volume of early works by first reading one of the five additional short stories, "Defender of the Faith," on recommendation of a young reading pal. As I read it I wondered if this piece was where all the charges of Roth being a "self-hating Jew" had begun, and as I read on Wikipedia, it apparently was.

So, Roth dares to look at things with more complexity than black and white and eschews neat and childish political boundaries and simplistic feel-good categories. All the more reason to show the man some respect.

The story was superb.

The man writes like an angel, as a friend once put it.

The short stories:
Each is splendid in its way. All dealing with Jewish assimilation in post-war (WWII) USA.

"Defender of the Faith" and "Eli, the Fanatic" are the two longest ones, about 40-50pp. each. The latter is an interesting tale with some tinge of magical realism about assimilation vs. tradition; Jews in postwar America not wanting to upset the apple cart in the land that has treated them best of all the places on earth in their long struggle for peace; feeling shame about their orthodox past being out in the open in small-town America. Eli is a lawyer sent by his own assimilated colleagues to send the old-school Jews packing; but he tries to affect a compromise, sensing the injustice and feeling guilty about his own role in the process. The impending birth of his son elicits issues of continuity, tradition and self-identity as a Jew. The idea of a suit, not just as an outer piece of cloth than can be exchanged or replaced, but as an external manifestation of one's inner identity, etc.... Good stuff.

"Epstein," another of the longer stories, tells of the mid-life crisis of a hardworking Jewish breadwinner; seemingly disrespected at home and tortured by a sense of life passing him by all around him. The inevitable lure of an affair,...

"You Can't Tell a Man by the Song He Sings." This one, honestly didn't do much for me, but it was fun.

"Conversion of the Jews." A cute story about magical revelations stemming from a boy's act of questioning and rebellion. Violence should not be a part of imparting faith on children, etc.

In all of the stories, Roth's characters are not heroic, they are human and contradictory. Some people have trouble wrapping their heads around this.

All the stories in this book should be read, not just "Goodbye, Columbus."
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Reading Progress

03/20/2009 page 55
18.46%
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

sigh. this may be my next roth, z


Evan In addition to "Columbus" there are five other stories. I'm on the last of those. So six stories in all. In other words, "Columbus" is a fairly short book but when you combine all the stories you're looking at about 300 pages.
All of the pieces are fine.


message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

roth gets being human, doesn't he?


message 4: by Jessica (new)

Jessica yes, and he's not afraid to express it.
what that's like.
us in all of our contradictions...

not enough writers do, imo.




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