Getting Out Alive

Elaine Blair in The Paris Review:

Goobyecolumbus_tomkeoghWhat is “Goodbye, Columbus”? A story of a summer romance, a satirical sketch of suburban arriviste Jews in the fifties—sure. But when I stumbled on Philip Roth’s first book on the shelf of my high school library, “Goodbye, Columbus” seemed to me above all a brief against marriage. The story’s point—or so I thought of it—unsettled me. I had no intention of heeding it. I was for marriage, a born ball and chain. In the story, Neil Klugman, recently out of Rutgers and the army, works behind the desk at the Newark Library. His summer girlfriend is Brenda Patimkin, a Radcliffe student from tony Short Hills, New Jersey. “We lived in Newark when I was a baby,” she tells Neil—that is, before the Patimkins’ social climb. For Neil, Brenda’s allure is tangled up with his fascination of her prosperous world, and the closer the two of them get, the closer Neil comes to signing up for the whole Patimkin package: a fancy wedding, a lifetime management job at her father’s factory (Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks), a country-club membership, a house in Short Hills, and, inevitably, babies. It’s cushy, but Neil isn’t sure he wants that life, while Brenda seems to consider no other.

The second time I read “Goodbye, Columbus,” I was in my late twenties, living in New York City, working in the editorial department of a magazine, and had no aspirations to move to the suburbs. I didn’t think I particularly resembled Brenda Patimkin or the rich young matrons of Short Hills, whose ranks she seemed destined to join, yet I felt very much the thing being cautioned against. I knew myself to be a future wife; I harbored dreams of having children. And I was surrounded by Neils, leery of family life. On the subject of family planning, a beau had recently leaned back in his chair and recited “This Be the Verse.” I have not forgotten his smugness, or my defensiveness: he had some pretty good writing on his side. He might have read aloud from “Goodbye, Columbus,” from a scene that preoccupied me in those days. While Brenda goes dress shopping in New York, Neil drives up to the mountains alone and observes a group of picnicking young mothers and children: “Young white-skinned mothers, hardly older than I, and in many instances younger, chatted in their convertibles behind me, and looked down from time to time to see what their children were about.” Neil has seen them in the mountains before; “in clutches of three or four they dotted the rustic hamburger joints that dotted the Reservation area.” While their kids feed the jukebox, the mothers, “a few of whom I recognized as high school classmates of mine, compared suntans, supermarkets, and vacations. They looked immortal sitting there.” They looked immortal sitting there. The irony needled me. The line stayed with me for years. I was sure, on last reading it, that Roth meant not that the mothers individually looked immortal but that the condition of motherhood—and fatherhood—was immortal, the inescapable, wearying lot of most of humanity. Neil was girding himself to get out while he could.

More here.