Thursday, September 6, 2012

Reading Journal: Goodbye, Columbus, by Philip Roth (1959)

The titular novella and five short stories comprise Roth's debut, which snagged the National Book Award, way back when. My eyes were opened particularly by the story "The Conversion of the Jews," in which a young Jewish boy engages in literal brinkmanship - threatening to jump off a roof - in order to prove his point that other religions than Judaism are no more or less true. As for "Goodbye, Columbus," it's a story of young love had and lost, and particularly, about class, as the Rutgers-attending narrator from Newark falls in with Brenda of the affluent suburb, Short Hills, who is also a student at Radcliffe College, in Boston. "Eli the Fanatic" tells of attempts to assimilate a more traditional Jew into his more modern community, and "You Can't Tell a Man by the Song He Sings" of general boyhood mischief: being tricked by older boys into taking the blame for the acts he joined them in. And "Defender of the Faith" is a rather hilarious account of a sympathetic army commander who gets three fellow Jews in his unit and exhaustingly concedes to their special requests not otherwise honoured by the army (e.g., religious holidays). It's a searing statement of identity, a book (and a writer) with a fire in his belly and one who writes almost savagely, brusquely, using short words and sentences where others might noodle. An indispensable American document; love him or hate him, your path with Roth begins here, and - if it's O.K. to say 50 years after the fact - it's an amazingly auspicions debut.

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