Goodbye, Columbus. Read April 30 – May 4, 2013. Roth’s first book, containing one novella and five short stories, was published in 1959.
In his first set of stories, Philip Roth delivers a warts and all, unflinching report of the average American post-war Jewish experience. If you are a fan of Roth you have to read these stories, which clearly point in the direction his amazing body of work went. He was tagged a self-hating Jew after the publication of these stories, but a fearless examination of any culture will reveal the good and the bad, the funny and the sad, and the Jewish culture of these particular times are the perfect vehicle for Roth, with assimilation and loss and need and the American dream creating a heady mix of emotions and questions of identity. Only the story You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings is not overtly about Jewish culture though it is definitely about identity and belonging. In Epstein, I was struck by similarities to American Pastoral in the the family dynamic and especially the daughter’s portrayal. In Goodbye, Columbus, the protagonist Neil reminded me immediately of The Graduate and I later read a number of comparisons in reviews of the story.
Here are the basic premises of the six stories:
Goodbye, Columbus — Relationship between lower class educated young man & rich collegiate girl
The Conversion of the Jews — A boy sincerely questions religion and is assaulted by rabbi
Defender of the Faith — A scheming young recruit uses religion and culture to take advantage of a young veteran sergeant
Epstein — A husband in the midst of mid life crisis
You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings — The strange relationship between two young men high school
Eli, the Fanatic — A nervous american jewish lawyer is hired to force an orthodox fundamentalist religious school out of a gentrified culturally-mixed suburban community
After seeing the American Masters Philip Roth: Unmasked, I was under the impression Roth’s early work wouldn’t be near the power of his later work. I was wrong. This is a wonderful collection of stories, ending with the the amazing Eli, the Fanatic. Highly recommended.
A wonderful friend and fellow reading and design aficionado asked for comment on the book cover choices on this blog. As a designer, I want the best visual representation of the book to lead the post and search as deeply as Google allows to find the right cover. In a convergence of the most important things in my life, one of the greatest visual practitioners, writers and thinkers designed a cover of Roth’s first book! Here, Paul Rand designs a cover obviously referencing the central novella of the collection, dividing the space dramatically in half. Above, the lipstick trace on what could be old letter paper or the flyleaf of an old book represents the sexual core and inappropriateness of the main characters’ relationship. Below, the open flowing female hand and stars reflect the wistfulness and romanticism of young love.