Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Review of Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth: Book 16 of 52

I took my tattered paperback copy of Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth on a recent bus trip because I knew it was small enough to fit in my back pocket as I walked around Washington, DC. I was late and I wanted something to read, and Goodbye was close at hand.

This is why I keep a needlessly large library on hand; these emergencies arise from time to time, and if I only kept the most literate books or my favorite books or the prettiest books, then in moments like this I'd be S.O.L.

I've never read Roth's first work before, though I've confessed how much I enjoy his prose. A novella and four short stories, Goodbye Columbus has all the hallmarks of the Roth I know: caustic, irreverent protagonists who do far too little to care for the people around them (especially the women); "well adjusted" assimilated families quietly falling apart under the strain; Newark, NJ as a backdrop.

The thing I enjoyed most about Goodbye was the nakedness of the power struggle between the characters. When Neil pushes his girlfriend to buy a diaphragm so they won't have to use condoms, and when she responds by leaving it where her parents are sure to find it, both characters know what they've done and why. They ask each other the precise question we're asking as readers- why and they don't have meaningful answers. I think life is like that, especially when we're young and still testing the limits of mistakes, forgiveness and consequences.

There are no happy endings here, but for each of the protagonists life goes on. For each of them it is broken in some permanent way by defensiveness and feelings of inadequacy, by the exposure of parental authority's weakness, by the conniving and intolerance of people who should know better.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post! "The Conversion of the Jews," which I think is in the same book, is one of my favorite short stories. I'll never forget the line as the protagonist's friends are urging him to suicide: "Be a Martin!"