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Guestwords: Columbus Bows Out

Thu, 10/07/2021 - 09:42

I have just reread Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus,” by chance, not in preparation for Oct. 11 — now to be celebrated as Indigenous People’s Day (so ciao to Cristoforo Colombo!). And quite right, too, as America was discovered and settled long before 1492.

No, I picked it up in search of a good read, and a good read it delivers.

The title novella looks like a portrait of a cad, according to today’s values. It’s possible that the 20-something author was not aware of what he was revealing about himself, but it fits with his personal history. The title story also became a very successful movie in 1969, launching the careers of Ali MacGraw and Richard Benjamin. The film follows Roth’s text very closely, transposing much of the dialogue word for word.

Even in his youth Roth was a master at controlling his reader’s response to his writing — at least, it works on me, and I am not alone. The literary world agreed, giving “Goodbye, Columbus” the National Book Award for 1960. It was his first publication, with 29 novels to follow. In 2013, in an annual survey of top critics, 77 percent voted Roth “the greatest living American novelist.”

In my opinion, however, the real genius of this collection lies in the short stories that follow the title novella. There is a hilarious one titled “The Conversion of the Jews,” in which a Jewish boy forces his rabbi to confess — contrary to earlier denials — that God could make a child without intercourse.

One story in particular, a satire, “Eli, the Fanatic,” arrested my attention. Eli is a small-town lawyer living in an “integrated” suburb in postwar New Jersey. Integrated, in this context, and to the protagonist and his friends, means Reform Jews living side by side with Protestants (meaning Christians).

The crisis that has invaded the tranquillity of this new utopia is the unwanted appearance in town of an Orthodox yeshivah, one of whose members has the temerity to walk around town wearing a bekishe and a black hat. Eli is retained by his Jewish neighbors to run them out of town on the grounds that they are violating local zoning laws that do not permit schools in the area.

But poor Eli suffers a crise de conscience. He tries to accommodate the situation by suggesting that the Orthodox man wear “20th century” clothing when going into town. He even delivers his own suits and accessories for the purpose, but when the man complies, Eli is compelled by some instinct to don the other’s black clothing and parade himself wearing it around town.

In the end, he is called mad and taken away. Roth, characteristically, leaves it up to us to conclude what we like. Is he laughing at Eli or is he commenting on the absurdity of trying to cut oneself off from one’s roots? At one point in the title story, the protagonist says, “I can’t go to either side . . . they both seem so ridiculous to me.”

All the stories in “Goodbye, Columbus” have to do with assimilation; with Jews trying to lose themselves in the great American melting pot — a topical subject in our age of identity politics. Today, everybody seems to be doing the opposite, identifying with some label — color, race, sex, gender, religion, origin, generation, region, not to mention politics — looking for a tribe to which to belong or to label one to be against.

Have we jumped from the illusory melting pot into a fire of separate, untouchable embers? Have we all become fanatics like Eli? Seems to me that Roth was suggesting that reality is ambiguous and purity is madness.

Three cheers for Philip Roth, and bye-bye, Columbus.

Ana Daniel, a regular book reviewer for The Star, lives in Bridgehampton.

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