It is infamous, the novella that simultaneously sheds light on the Jewish New York culture of the 1950s and 60s, and distorts it.
When the work was released, the relatively young Roth (only 27) was criticized heavily by Jewish organizations, who often called him a self-hating Jew. The title is still applied to him today, despite the fact that he has time and again denied it.
When I read “Goodbye, Columbus,” I never had the feeling he hated his own culture, or himself. Certainly, he wasn’t writing with rose-coloured glasses on, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a clear nostalgia in the way he writes his self-surrogate Neil Klugman, or Klugman’s aunt, overbearing and almost absolutely an inspiration for the many portraits of Jewish maternal figures that followed, seen in the works of Woody Allen, Rob Reiner, and even The Big Bang Theory.
Despite the fact that I was baptized and am technically Catholic, I felt a kinship to Roth’s characters, which means this isn’t just for other lost Jews to read (another complaint lobbied at the inexperienced author). The more specific Roth is in his portrayal of the Klugman (and Patimkin) family, the more relatable, or at the very least interesting, they become.
“Goodbye, Columbus” follows Neil Klugman through a particularly affecting time in his young adult life: his first real relationship. We know he’s dated other girls, but here, with Jewish upper class princess Brenda Patimkin, he has conversations of depth about what it means to be with someone, spends time with her family, takes time off his first real job to see her, lies to (and therefore shames) his aunt and uncle, discusses marriage, and fumbles through his first sexual experience. Roth describes the entire affair, from the first time to the last time they lay eyes on each other, in excruciating detail; excruciating because he makes us feel like Neil. He smartly writes in first person, and therefore when Brenda is withholding or fanciful or lustful, we never have a clear idea of why unless she says it, and this is exactly how Neil experiences these moments as well.
The turning points in this story are perfectly small, such as when Brenda buys her first diaphram, or when Neil, bored working at a public library, meets and forms a friendship with a young black boy, who’s got a veracious appetite for books, despite the fact that he can’t read (he likes the pictures). Roth is so skilled a writer he makes seemingly innocuous relationships, like the one between Neil and Brenda’s brother, Ron, who shows him the jazz piece “Goodbye, Columbus” from which the title derives, or the one between Neil and the boy from the library, as interesting and important to Neil’s development as his relationship with Brenda. These supporting characters leave him, like Brenda does, and yet he’s better for having experienced all of them.
I have yet to read Roth’s other work, but I imagine, because this was his debut, that as a writer he grows. What I can’t imagine is how, because “Columbus” gave me everything I wanted.