Hello, Columbus


Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories
By Philip Roth
289 Pages. Vintage Books USA. $13.

Boy meets girl. Boy gets girl. Boy loses girl. First love’s always a classic tale, but in Philip Roth’s hand, in “Goodbye, Columbus,” it takes on the shimmer of a diamond—or should I say a Jewish star. Roth was just 26 when he wrote the story, part of a collection which won the National Book Award, and when I first read it, I was 16 and starry-eyed, and though I loved the story, I think I missed the point.

Of course “Goodbye, Columbus” isn’t any ordinary boy-meets-girl story. It’s about Neil Klugman, vaguely ashamed and angry that he didn’t go to a better school than Rutgers, that he lives at home with his crazy aunt, and that he works at the local library in the Bronx. One summer, he’s reluctantly invited to a cousin’s Westchester country club, and it’s there that he’s instantly smitten with gorgeous, wealthy Brenda Patimkin, a Radcliffe undergrad who is living a life of privilege. And she’s smitten back.

Oh, how I loved that beginning, but at 16, I don’t think I saw the biting, acerbic wit, or the nastiness, that simmered inside of Neil. I admired his feverish pursuit of Brenda, the way the two lovers seemed headed for marriage and the happily ever after that entailed, but now, rereading, I see the way he can’t help undercutting his desire for Brenda with an equal need to cut Brenda down to size. 

He mocks her getting her nose fixed. He grabs cherries out of her overstuffed refrigerator and tosses them out into the toilet. Furious, he refuses to let her pampered little sister Julie win at a game, an unspoken Patimkin rule. In truth, he doesn’t really see Brenda. When he meets her at the train station, he remarks that she doesn’t look like Brenda to him. There’s always a sense of their getting to know each other, even after all their time together, and there’s always something standing in the way of their happiness, which is, of course, each other. Brenda’s trying to get back at her mother, whom she thinks hates her—and what better way than by choosing an unsuitable boy? Smug and self-righteous and disapproving of her family’s excesses, Neil still can’t help himself from loving what he disapproves of. He’s desperate to improve his own lowly status, and at times, it seems as though he’s using Brenda to do it.

In much of Roth’s work, his heroes need to humiliate and control the women they’re with, in order to prove something to themselves, and “Goodbye, Columbus” is no different.  Neil’s one way of having control over Brenda is to insist she get a diaphragm (remember that this story is set in the ’50s, folks, and at the time this sexual adventure was a mite scandalous). It’s not just to protect against her getting pregnant; the diaphragm is a symbol to him—a mark that they have a real relationship, that they’re adults and serious about love and its consequences. But Brenda makes use of the symbolism of that tricky little rubber Frisbee, too, carefully planting it in her drawer at home where her mother can find it. Brenda knows which side of the challah is buttered for her, and she sets things up to make sure the affair is doomed, without actually having to take responsibility for it. Both of them have used sex to manipulate the other. Who, we might say, is zooming who?

When the book first came out, my father told me, that like a great many Jews, he was deeply offended by it. Of course, he was even more upset by the film, which boasted the tagline, “Every father’s daughter is a virgin,” and he refused to see it. The nouveau richeness of the Patimkins, with their refrigerator super-stocked just with fruit, the over-the-top opulence of Brenda’s brother’s wedding, which was more of a feeding frenzy, insulted him. Reading the story now, I find it funny and moving—because the excess is seen through Neil’s eyes, worked up into a lather of equal parts disapproval and overwhelming yearning. 

Rereading the story, it’s interesting to me how completely unlikable both the characters are—and that’s revolutionary. Yes, it’s a love story, but it’s bigger than just about Neil and Brenda. In a funny way, it’s a love story about culture clash and value clash. Mr. Patimkin started out like Neil, with just about nothing, but he grew rich, and to him, giving his kids anything their hearts desire, be it coats or dresses, or a way out of an affair that was meant to wound them, is his pleasure. And because of Roth’s genius, it becomes the reader’s pleasure as well.