Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Birth Year Reading Challenge: Goodbye, Columbus

I love it when a book is perfectly timed. Sometimes I don't know what I'm in the mood for, so I scout my TBR shelves and challenge lists for something that catches my fancy. Sometimes I make an unlucky choice. And sometimes my eye happens to light on a read that's just right.

I think I would have liked this book, regardless, but on a drizzly holiday afternoon, it was exactly what I wanted. If Roth's story of Neil Klugman and his romance with Brenda Patimkin was a song, the singer would have perfect pitch.

Neil is rather the classic "nice Jewish boy," a recently-graduated philosophy major who works in the public library and spends the summer visiting his aunt and uncle. He also spends the summer in love with Brenda, who is another type of Jewish altogether: she and her family are so relentlessly, WASPishly upper-middle-class, it's hard to believe they have anything whatsoever in common with the Klugmans. The American Jewish experience is Roth's stock in trade, and as far as I can tell, he has the details down pat.

Part of this novella's charm is Roth's deft mixture of narrative humor--and maybe a little self-delusion--with heartbreaking honesty. Roth can turn a moment funny or sad on the proverbial dime, all the while revealing a deeper truth, perhaps one that the characters themselves don't want to see. And overall, Neil's abiding awkwardness comes through. The tone of this book reminds me a lot of the movie "The Graduate", with its sense of foundational values that are simultaneously repulsive and difficult to reject. Neil also has just a whiff of Holden Caulfield about him; compared with the bluntness of his own background, he can't help but notice the "phoniness" of excessive good manners.

Part of its charm is that this is my era, and so many of the scenes ring true for me. Younger or older readers might not identify with these characters, but I certainly do. I remember very well growing up with the feeling that there was clearly a Right Thing To Do (based on social values, not moral values), and that certain conventions were to be followed without question. Guilt was a powerful maternal weapon. I am not kidding when I say that the rules of my teenage behavior in the 1970's were largely determined by my mother's circa 1940 Emily Post etiquette book. With such a behavioral guide, it's a miracle I was ever allowed to get my ears pierced.

This is a well-crafted, beautifully written, funny, sad, modern coming-of-age novel, in the best sense of all those words. Funny how a book as old as I am can still shine across the years. Some things don't fade with age, and this is one of them.

Excerpt:

When I pulled up to the Patimkin house that night, everybody but Julie was waiting for me on the front porch: Mr. and Mrs., Ron, and Brenda, wearing a dress. I had not seen her in a dress before and for an instant she did not look like the same girl. But that was only half the surprise. So many of those Lincolnesque college girls turn out to be limbed for shorts alone. Not Brenda. She looked, in a dress, as though she'd gone through life so attired, as though she'd never worn shorts, or bathing suits, or pajamas, or anything but that pale linen dress. I walked rather bouncingly up the lawn, past the huge weeping willow, towards the waiting Patimkins, wishing all the while that I'd had my car washed. Before I'd even reached them, Ron stepped forward and shook my hand, vigorously, as though he hadn't seen me since the Diaspora. Mrs. Patimkin smiled and Mr. Patimkin grunted something and continued twitching his wrists before him, then raising an imaginary golf club and driving a ghost of a golf ball up and away towards the Orange Mountains, that are called Orange, I'm convinced, because in that various suburban light that's the only color they do not come dressed in.

6 comments:

  1. You had me at weeping willow. Is Columbus in the title referring to the city or the man?

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  2. It's Columbus the city, Willow. The title phrase comes from a sentimental college record about leaving Ohio State behind at graduation, which Brenda's brother plays repeatedly in the book. Roth uses the record to highlight Neil's rite of passage and attempt to fit into two worlds.

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  3. Excellent review! Have you seen the movie? I remember it very clearly, and if you haven't seen it, I am quite sure you'd like it. Ali MacGraw and Richard Benjamin were perfect.

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  4. Nan, I haven't seen the movie. I read that many stars turned down the roles (Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood, to name a few), so it must have been luck that the casting went the way it did. I'll have to check it out.

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  5. Great review. I loved the novella and the other short stories -- did you read the collected version or just the novella as a stand-alone?

    Here is my review of the collection on Rose City Reader> I am going to add a link to your review without asking because I seem to remember that you told me it was ok to do so.

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  6. Thanks, Rose. I thought you would like it! I read the collection (also excellent) but decided not to review it; I'm trying to give myself a break on number and length of reviews, to leave more time for reading.

    Links are always okay. We've made some new friends from your site, so thanks again.

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