Three years after graduating, Neil Klugman begins an affair with Brenda Patimkin, Ivy League student and Jewish princess, whose father is the prosperous owner of Patimkin Kitchen & Bathroom Sinks. It’s a summer affair set in the late 50s in a prosperous New Jersey suburb. Neil, super-smart and bookish, is intimidated by the sporty men who surround Brenda: Luther Ferrari, an ex- who played at state level “in at least two sports”, her father and Ron, her lunk of a brother.
The story is a romance, but also a comedy. As well as the country club world Brenda belongs to, Roth satirises his own background. His aunt speaks in the entertaining Jewish-American syntax familiar not only from the rest of his work, but also more recently from Seinfeld and Woody Allen films: when Neil tells his aunt Brenda’s last name is Patimkin, she says, “Patimkin I don’t know. You’re going to call her you don’t know her?’ However, it’s the bittersweet romance that gives Goodbye, Columbus its emotional heft.
In a slightly otherworldly scene in the pool at her parents’ club, after dark, with no one else around, Neil and Brenda play an odd game. She closes her eyes and waits at the side of the pool while he goes in, swims awhile, comes out again and surprises her. They take turns at this and what’s at sake is the topic of their conversation: the question of whether or not he loves her, and whether or not her parents will come to approve of him. It’s a strikingly off-kilter scene, an elegant exercise in emotional tone. Brenda has effectively grilled him about his prospects; it’s clear that her parents have been suggesting to her that he has no initiative (he lives with his aunt and uncle) and no prospects (he works in a library). She asks him if he loves her, and the implication is that if he does, all her parents’ reservations will count for nothing. But he says he doesn’t and the game is played, a strange contest of wills. As the story develops, these two conflicting forces – her family’s disapproval and her uncertainty about committing to him – come to be channelled through his attempts to persuade her to get a diaphragm. And this central conflict is subtly complicated by their ambivalence about each other, which runs beneath the surface of the narrative.
The title refers to a record Ron plays to Neil, an LP students of his university – Ohio State, in, presumably, Columbus – are given when they graduate, which contains an unidentified spoken word track with the refrain, And so, goodbye, Columbus, goodbye. One of the achievements of this fine novella is the way that the resonant motifs of both the diaphragm and the recording symbolise the tensions between the lovers – which decide the outcome.
Goodbye, Columbus is funny, succinct and satisfyingly satirical. Roth writes great scenes with terrific dialogue: Neil joisting with his aunt; arguing with Brenda; being grilled by Mrs Patimkin; listening to Ron enthuse about Mantovani (“I like semi-classical a lot”). I was in my teens when I first read this book, and it was part of growing list of American novels I fell for back then. At an unconscious level, I think I realised that Neil Klugman’s mindset was that of the protagonists of Updike’s story ‘A & P’, of Catch 22, Slaughterhouse Five, Trout Fishing in America and The Catcher in the Rye. The first contemporary American fiction I read had colourful, vibrant, idiomatic language, and was full of warmth, life and humour. Contemporary English writing, by comparison – the novels of, for instance, Amis,père et fils, of Greene and McEwan – was bleak, downtrodden and self-hating. The world of American fiction wasn’t grey and dank; it was fun, feisty and drenched in golden light. These novels set down on the page the essence of the films and music I loved. I still loveGoodbye, Columbus. It’s an affecting, funny novel – and it’s short, which is why it’s here.
Robert Graham’s new short story collection, When You Were A Mod, I was A Rocker, is published by Like This Press.