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Saturday, December 27, 2014

"Goodbye, Columbus" by Philip Roth

I didn't plan on reading "Goodbye, Columbus" this year.  This collection of short stories by the great Philip Roth wasn't even on my reading list, but finding a paperback copy in my local used bookstore for $1 changed all of that.

The title story is a touching narrative of a young man searching for meaning.  Neil Klugman's search for both identity and meaning seems a conventional one at the start.  He's a young man, and young men in 1950s America had visions driven by personal urges in a post-World War II America filled to the brim with the expectations of success.  He becomes involved with a young woman, Brenda, from a rich Jewish family.  Throughout the narrative, Neil navigates a confusing map of love, materialism, identity, race and gender roles.  This is what Roth does best by way of style.  He creates characters that walk a thin line between making the best of the lot given to them, their struggle to reject/change that lot, and ultimately the reemergence of an altogether new person.  Neil is the great observer of the Patimkin clan, Brenda's family.  In this process of observation, Neil's own struggle with identity and "Jewishness" is detailed with masterful strokes.  Neil recognizes these struggles, but remains objective, reserving judgment of himself while still giving others the benefit of confidence and intimacy.  There's a very touching scene with Ron Patimkin, Brenda's brother, in Ron's bedroom that reveals the source of the title in the story and is perhaps one of the most intimate and disarming scene written by Roth in his early career.  The story really shows a mature writer, a man with a great sense of style and the talent to bring it forth with a sense of realism and believability unmatched at the time.

The stories that follow the title-story are perhaps the source of Philip Roth's early notoriety.  In "The Conversion of the Jews," "Defender of the Faith," and particularly in "Eli, the Fanatic," Roth really straddled hot topics related to the Jewish faith and identity.  For this reason, Roth was labeled a "self-hating Jew," and call a number of other unflattering names.  I suspect that those judgments were made by people rushing to conclusions about the real meaning of the stories.  There's a level of artistry and literary sophistication in Roth's work that would elude the conventional reader.  I am not saying this to be a snob about literary matters, especially in defending one of my favorite writers.  Yet, I tried reading the stories from the point of view of a Jew, to see, if I could to the extent that I could, what the controversy and the hot-buttons were.  I failed not because I am not sensitive to the concerns of those who brought forth the charges of anti-Semitism against Roth, but I think there's a disconnect to the cultural and religious climate of 1959-1960, and with that disconnect (and in our post 9-11 world) it is impossible for us to see the reality of this fiction being NOT critical, but rather looking at these topics at a microscopic level.  "The Conversion of the Jews" in particular strikes me as just that, a satire of that very absurd understanding of what it means to follow religion and dogma.

Throughout the criticism and the "hard years," Philip Roth endured.  He announced his retirement from fiction writing not too long ago, and, while I knew I still had some of his books to read, I made a note of those I am still missing in order to keep them flowing at snail pace, to enjoy every drip of masterful writing and down-right genius.  Aside from his fiction, I read whatever he publishes by way of book reviews or social/political commentary.  I think Philip Roth is, like a handful of others I admire, a national treasure.  My next one is "American Pastoral" and I can't wait to delve into it with all I've got.

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