Philip Roth - Goodbye, Columbus

Philip Roth - Goodbye, Columbus
Rating - 8.1

Goodbye, Columbus is a coming of age story, a summer romance between a poor boy and a wealthy girl. Many themes that were to show up in much more detail in his later works are presented in embryonic form in this novella, his first major work. Being Jewish in America, sex, class boundaries, the American Way: All Roth subjects, all handled with intelligence and compassion.

Neil is the typical poor Jewish boy enamoured with Brenda, the classy, self-assured, rich girl. He shows a rare spark of confidence when he calls her for a date after first meeting her at a swimming pool, when she accepts and they meet, he finds that he really doesn't know what to do from there. But, they bumble through the beginnings of a relationship, mutually attracted physically, diametrically opposed socially. Neil has a few 'poor' ideas and thoughts that Brenda cannot relate to, while she accepts such luxuries as a maid or 'getting her nose fixed' with such ease and complacency that we - and Neil - are amazed. Over the summer, their relationship develops further, with the typical ups and downs of love colouring the journey.

Neil is the 'I' character of the story, and it is through his point of view that we watch the story unfold. However, even though the story is in first person, there is never much of his personality revealed through contemplative thought or reflection. Instead, we learn who he is from the way he interacts with Brenda and others, and from the way he studies the events in which he is involved. By the end of the novella, we (mostly) understand his motives and ideas, and though, admittedly, it is a little difficult to imagine Neil existing outside the scope of the novel, that actually plays into the theme of the story. Neil is searching for meaning, for a reason to keep on existing, and he considers that in Brenda, he has found it. Whether this is true or not becomes a large focus in the novel, particularly when, later on, she repeatedly reveals to him that she is in fact her own person, with her own ideas, and that sometimes they won't mesh with his.

Brenda, on the other hand, remains a complete mystery to both the reader and Neil. Because we are never allowed to see her thoughts, and because her and Neil have such a different social background, she is someone who we try to understand, but inevitably fail. At times, Neil will say or do something and she will become upset, or tender, or both, and Neil will be so confused that he simply accepts. This can be frustrating for the reader, because Brenda is an appealing character, and it would be nice for him to have the gumption to search deeper within her for meaning and thought, but unfortunately he rarely does. Interestingly, this doesn't come off so much as a failing on Roth's part as an author, but Neil's as a character.

As stated above, the typical themes and ideas that Roth was to develop more fully in his later works are present here. There is the same easy insight into the mundane reality of life, and the same simple joy in, say, eating a piece of fruit or swimming in a pool. Goodbye, Columbus is a story that focuses on one single idea, that being the summer romance between two people that could not have a relationship in any other situation, and it explores it in a remarkably fulfilling way. Admittedly, the very Jewish quality of the writing and ideas may not be as identifiable for a non-Jewish person, but speaking as a man of no faith, I didn't find it to be all that much of a problem. Also, the casual racism towards African-Americans may be off-putting, but again, it didn't upset the flow of the novel.

To conclude, what Roth has done here is to introduce himself as an author, and for a twenty-six year old, it is an impressive introduction. Having read other works of his, I would recommend it as a good starting point. If you like Goodbye, Columbus - and I am quite certain everyone would - then you will love his later works. If not, not. And at only 140 pages, it is worth everyone's time to check out.

See Also

Exit Ghost
My Life as a Man
Novels, 1973-1977 (Library of America)
Zuckerman Bound


Wikipedia - Author
Wikipedia - Novel


American Authors