Fifty years ago Philip Roth made his literary debut, or at least he published his first book. “Goodbye, Columbus is a first book,” Saul Bellow wrote famously in Commentary, “but it is not the book of a beginner.” At twenty-six Roth seemed not simply to have mastered the art of fiction, but to have bypassed the apprentice stage altogether. “Unlike those of us who came howling into the world, blind and bare,” said the author of Henderson the Rain King, published the same year, “Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair, and teeth, speaking coherently.”
It is astonishing, in fact, how little Roth has changed since 1959. His characteristic concerns were all in place in his first book: his faith in fiction as a diagnostic tool for social reality, his estrangement from both Jewish tradition and its secular alternative, the modesty and other-directedness of his role as a literary intellectual. Although William Peden described it in the New York Times as a “somewhat incongruous mingling of conventional boy-meets-girl material and portrait-of-the-intellectual-as-a-young-man,” what is more remarkable, reading Goodbye, Columbus fifty years later, is how effectively Roth keeps Neil Klugman from becoming the center of attention.
In the 1969 film version, Richard Benjamin plays Neil—a hideous disfiguring casting mistake. (He also played Alexander Portnoy, three years later. What? There were no other young Jewish actors in Hollywood?) Benjamin was too nebbishy and sincere, incapable of self-concealment; Roth’s 23-year-old narrator by contrast has a nasty streak, which unnerves Brenda Patimkin:
“I had my nose fixed.”
“What was the matter with it?”
“It was bumpy.”
“No,” she said, “I was pretty. Now I’m prettier. My brother’s having his fixed in the fall.”
“Does he want to be prettier?”
She didn’t answer and walked ahead of me again.
“I don’t mean to sound facetious. I mean why’s he doing it?”
“He wants to . . . unless he becomes a gym teacher . . . but he won’t,” she said. “We all look like my father.”
“Is he having his fixed?”
“Why are you so nasty?”
The question is whether they are real people. The wartime success of Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks, cinched with a military contract (“no new barracks was complete until it had a squad of Patimkin sinks lined up in its latrine”), enabled the family to escape its Newark roots, but leaves it without any source of meaning. With the Patimkins, all is surfaces; their lives are given over to “the dissection, analysis, reconsideration, and finally, the embracing of the trivial.” When Mrs. Patimkin asks him what Temple he belongs to (perhaps the book’s only slip: as a nominally Orthodox Jew, she would have said shul), Neil tries to think of something that will convince her he is not an apostate. “Do you know Martin Buber’s work?” he asks finally. “Buber . . . Buber,” she mutters. “Is he orthodox or conservative?”
Being active in synagogue and Hadassah are the vestigial remains of Jewish tradition among those for whom being Jewish no longer means having been chosen by God to perform his commandments. “They’re goyim, my kids,” Mr. Patimkin says when Neil is able to translate a Yiddish word, “that’s how much they understand.” The saddest of them is Brenda. Although she has a taste for clothes and enjoys shopping for them in high-end stores, she is only partly a JAP. She also displays a wit that belongs to Newark rather than Short Hills. Everyone who has ever read Goodbye, Columbus recalls her most renowned quip. Asked what she has been doing all summer, she replies, “Growing a penis.” More typical of her is what she says to a friend’s fiancé who goes on pretentiously about “the film” until Brenda asks, “Which film?”
Among the other young suburban Jews of her class and generation, whose differences are microscopic, Brenda alone shines. “Money and comfort would not erase her singleness,” Neil believes—“they hadn’t yet, or had they?” In the end, though, she chooses the money and the comfort. Although she tells him that she loved him, and though she was quick to share with him “that hideous emotion” which is “the underside of love,” Brenda cannot answer Neil when, after her mother discovers her diaphragm and accuses her of ingratitude, he asks whether she believes that she has done anything wrong in sleeping with him:
“Did you do anything wrong?”
“Neil, they think it’s wrong. They’re my parents.”
“But do you think it’s wrong—”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“It does to me, Brenda . . .”
Goodbye, Columbus not only remains a virtuoso performance. It is also the best introduction to one of the five or six greatest American novelists, and a hint of the even greater work that he would produce over the next fifty years.