Philip Roth passed away this week at 85, having written over 30 books of fiction, autobiography, criticism, and essays over a 55-year span before announcing his retirement five years ago. He was one of my all-time favorite writers. Here is a re-post of my 2009 review of his first book, Goodbye, Columbus.
Philip Roth won the 1960 National Book Award for his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, a collection of five short stories and the title novella. He went on to create an incredible body of work – building on many themes introduced in Goodbye, Columbus – publishing 30 books to date with another on the way.
In the main novella, hero Neil Klugman is home in Newark after two years in the army. He has finished college, is working in the library, and lives with his Aunt Gladys and Uncle Max in the old neighborhood. When Neil falls in love with Brenda Patimkin, the prototypical Jewish American Princess whose family has moved to the suburbs up the hill, Roth begins the examination of American Jewish life that continues through many of his books.
The title is a reference to Ohio State University Seniors saying goodbye to college, goodbye to Columbus, Ohio, but it also signifies growing up and leaving youth behind. Neil and Brenda’s relationship demonstrates the intensity of first love, as well as the disillusionment and emotional tempering that result.
The five short stories that follow vary in force and effect. “The Conversion of the Jews” is a clever piece in which a young student starts a theological argument with his teacher along the lines of, “If God is omnipotent, can he make a rock too big for him to move?” It is fast and crisp and more than a little audacious.
How Jews, particularly secular Jews, assimilated into mid-century American culture is a common Roth theme. In “Defender of the Faith,” he looks at Jews in the military, drawing in part on his own experience in the army. This story leaves questions unanswered for later pondering: Just who defended the faith? Was it the hero, Sergeant Nathan Marx, who fought the Germans in WWII? Or the new recruit, Sheldon Grossman, who demands to follow his religious practices in boot camp? Is Grossman really looking out for the Jews in the unit, or just trying to gain preferential treatment? What about Marx? This would be an excellent pick for a lit class or book club.
“Epstein” is a morality tale about adultery on the brink of the sexual revolution. Louis Epstein learns the hard way that his generation does not get to share in the sexual frolics of the post-war, folk-singing, “socially conscious” next one.
In “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings,” Roth touches on themes he comes back to over and over, including growing up in Newark, baseball, interactions among ethnic groups, and political ideology. The idea of a high school teacher falling into the net of anti-communist committee hearing is one that Roth later developed fully in I Married a Communist, one of his Zuckerman novels.
The last story, “Eli the Fanatic,” is the most powerful of the bunch. When a group of religious Jews sets up a Yeshiva for Holocaust orphans, the secular Jews in the “modern community” of Woodenton, New Jersey want the school closed down, fearing that it will upset the delicate balance they have achieved with their secular Protestant neighbors. Poor Eli Peck gets caught in the middle, trying to negotiate between his fellow townsfolk and the school. Peck’s eventual comprehension of the past suffering of the Yeshiva Jews and the shameful position of his cohorts leads to his emotional undoing. This is a story to mull over.
Roth won several more awards after this one, including another National for Sabbath Theater, the Pulitzer for American Pastoral, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Counterlife, among others. He was a true man of letters and a real American treasure.
This was my National Book Award pick for the Battle of the Prizes Challenge.
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