A Look at 'Goodbye Columbus' on Philip Roth's 80th Birthday

Roth turns 80 today, and we look back at his first book, which, in the words of Saul Bellow, is "not the work of a beginner." 

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Happiest of birthdays to great American writer Philip Roth, who turns 80 today. Across this wild, wooly Internet you can find a range of tributes to the man, who, even when not writing books (last count: 27), remains in the spotlight, most recently, by announcing his retirement. Last month, a Vulture poll asked "Is Roth the Greatest Living American Novelist?" And 77 percent of responders, all literary folks themselves, answered yes.

First published in The Paris Review, the novella Goodbye Columbus functions not only as its own piece of fiction, but also as a glimpse into the mind of the young Roth as he deals with topics of cultural assimilation, sex, classism, estrangement, and religion that would run through much of his future work. His skill was pretty remarkable already: As William Peden wrote in his 1959 New York Times review of the book, "out of such hackneyed materials [referring to the summer romance plot] Mr. Roth has written a perceptive, often witty and frequently moving piece of fiction." Roth was 26 when Goodbye Columbus was published by Houghton Mifflin in a compilation that included five short stories. His first book, it won the 1960 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction and jump-started talk of Roth, good and bad—right away the author came under fire for unflattering portrayals of characters who are often Jewish.

While Goodbye Columbus is generally not regarded as Roth's best book, that hardly means it's shabby. As Saul Bellow wrote, "Goodbye, Columbus is a first book, but it is not the book of a beginner." In the novella, narrator Neil Klugman is a graduate of Rutgers. He's living with his Aunt Gladys, Uncle Max, and cousin Doris in their blue-collar neighborhood of Newark, where he has a job at the public library. On a trip to the country club, he meets Brenda Patimkin, who goes to Radcliffe and lives with her wealthy family in Short Hills, New Jersey. Neil and Brenda have a summer romance, but of course, it's Roth, so there's more under the surface, and some right up front (spoiler: Brenda gets a diaphragm; that's the superficial beginning of the end).

I re-read Goodbye Columbus last night. I'd forgotten how funny it is, and I'd only partly remembered the depth of Roth's keen eye, his descriptive talents, and the way he can turn any mundane phrase or action into something beautiful. In honor of the writer's 80th birthday, here are eight things Roth gave us when he was just a young man.

1. Aunt Gladys. Oh, Aunt Gladys. She cooks four separate dinners for each of the people in her family, all at different times, because, "Sure, I should serve four different meals at once"? She won't serve pepper in her house because "she'd heard on Galen Drake that it was not absorbed by the body, and it was disturbing to Aunt Gladys to think that anything she served might pass through a gullet, stomach, and bowel just for the pleasure of the trip." She loves and cares and worries about her nephew, not just about him but whether he has clean underwear, and whether he's becoming too "fancy-shmancy" with his newfound association to Short Hills. As a character, she's an example of the old world, a lifeline home, and simultaneously, the cord of family you try to escape. She's also a bit of comedic relief.

2. The Most Romantic "Picking a Wedgie" Scene in Literary Fiction? In the first paragraph of the novella, Neil sets eyes upon Brenda. This is what he sees as she emerges from the pool: "She caught the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and flicked what flesh had been showing back where it belonged. My blood jumped."

Later, we also get what may be the first pretend golf swing in literary fiction: "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..."

3. Similes Abound Like Fireflies on a Summer Evening in Short Hills.

"... her head of short-clipped auburn hair held up, straight ahead of her, as though it were a rose on a long stem."

"... whichever I preferred, Aunt Gladys always had an abundance of the other jamming her refrigerator like stolen diamonds."

"It felt cavernous down there, but in a comforting way, like the simulated caves children make for themselves on rainy days, in hall closets, under blankets, or between the legs of dining room tables."

"...and on the top shelf, half of a huge watermelon, a thin sheet of wax paper clinging to its bare red face like a wet lip."

"...the trees rustled and flapped as though they were sheets that had been hung out to dry."

4. These Two Gorgeous Sentences About Lust and Love. "Actually we did not have the feelings we said we had until we spoke them—at least, I didn't; to phrase them was to invent them and own them. We whipped our strangeness and newness into a froth that resembled love, and we dared not play too long with it, talk too much of it, or it would flatten and fizzle away."

5. Dialogue like this, from Brenda Patimkin:

On the cost of a nose job: "A thousand dollars. Unless you go to a butcher."

On being drunk at your brother's wedding: "I'm so drunk my head doesn't even need my neck."

On being asked stupid questions at your brother's wedding: ["What have you been doing all summer?"]: "Growing a penis."

6. Descriptions like this, of Neil's library co-worker, John McKee: "His breath smelled of hair oil and his hair of breath and when he spoke, spittle cobwebbed the corners of his mouth."

And this, of the people you'll find at a library: "So that Mr. Scapello would not descend upon the boy with his chalky fingers, I walked up the three flights to Stack Three, past the receiving room where rheumy-eyed Jimmy Boylen, our fifty-one-year-old boy, unloaded books from a cart; past the reading room, where bums off Mulberry Street slept over Popular Mechanics; past the smoking corridor where damp-browed summer students from the law school relaxed, some smoking, others trying to rub the colored dye from their tort texts off their fingertips; and finally, past the periodical room, where a few ancient ladies who'd been motored down from Upper Montclair now huddled in their chairs, pince-nezing over yellowed, fraying society pages in old old copies of the Newark News."

7. When Did It Become a Matter of Course for College Students to Say, 'I Go to School in Boston'? Because that's exactly what Brenda tells Neil. When pressed, she admits that she goes to Radcliffe. Roth writes, "For an instant Brenda reminded me of the pug-nosed little bastards from Montclair who come down to the library during vacations and while I stamp out their books, they stand around tugging their elephantine scarves until they hang to their ankles, hinting all the while at 'Boston' and 'New Haven.'" Later, when a breakup starts to become impending, Neil explains, "I was convinced that even Miss Winney's stool was not high enough for me to see clear up to Boston."

8. This Perfectly Evocative Sentence About the Suburbs. Roth writes, near the opening of his novella, "It was, in fact, as though the hundred and eighty feet that the suburbs rose in altitude above Newark brought one closer to heaven, for the sun itself became bigger, lower, and rounder, and soon I was driving past long lawns which seemed to be twirling water on themselves, and past houses where no one sat on stoops, where lights were on but no windows open, for those inside, refusing to share the very texture of life with those of us outside, regulated with a dial the amounts of moisture that were allowed access to their skin."

As Roth explained of himself in the preface to the 30th anniversary edition of the book, "In the beginning it simply amazed him that any truly literate audience could seriously be interested in his store of tribal secrets, in what he knew, as a child of his neighborhood, about the rites and taboos of his clan—about their aversions, their aspirations, their fears of deviance and defection, their underlying embarrassments and their ideas of success." But they were, and they still are. As Peden wrote in that Times review of 26-year-old Roth, "He is a good story-teller, a shrewd appraiser of character and a keen recorder of an indecisive generation." Little was known in 1959 of how many generations would fall under his scope to record.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.