Friday, October 15, 2010

On "Goodbye, Columbus" by Philip Roth ****

I took this book on a recent trip with me because it had been years since I'd read it and because the old edition I have is a pocket paperback. In this age of e-books and trade paperbacks, having a literary pocketbook on one's travels is rather nice. You know, a book one can actually put in one's pocket--or lose without feeling to put out, since it was only 75 cents to begin with.

I first bought the book on another trip, I believe, to New York State, from California. This time, I was going the other way, from the East Coast back to the West, where I hadn't been in nearly a decade. I first bought the book because I was fascinated with Roth's dialogue, as it came to me in another more recent book of his (recent, that is, eighteen years ago). The themes seemed similar--an illicit love affair. I remember being somewhat disappointed, but I've kept the book all these years because it is Roth's one book of stories.

The novella at the heart of this book, this time around, read very well. It was the highlight of the book for me. The dialogue was quite good, of course, but I was even more blown away by some of Roth's turns of phrase and by his ability to show youthful love and lust in all its terrible vanity. It's still not close to being one of my favorites among Roth's oeuvre, but it's a fine short text, an exemplar of the form.

I wish I could say the same of the short stories. Fine, certainly, but some of them seem a bit forced, such as "Epstein," the tale of an older man moved to infidelity by the youths full of lust around him.

All of the stories focus on Jewish culture to some extent. "Defender of the Faith" focuses on Jewish soldiers hiding behind religion to get days off and other perks. "The Conversion of the Jews," oft anthologized, tells the tale of a kid forcing others to admit that God is powerful enough to have done what Judaism denies. "You Can't Tell a Man by the Song He Sings" tells of school hijinks and friendship and somehow manages to be more than the sum of its parts, despite its slight length. Most interesting to me among these pieces, though, is a story called "Eli, the Fanatic." Were I in a class, I would almost certainly write about the idea of the double in this tale, how Eli, a Jewish lawyer called upon to oust some orthodox Jews from the WASP neighborhood where secular Jews mix easily, ends up switching places with one of said orthodox Jews and discovers . . . himself. The one is the same as the other, deep down, Roth seems to be saying, all part of the same whole that is Jewish culture and that cannot be denied. It's a fascinating idea that bears exploration.

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