“Goodbye, Columbus” is a novel written by Philip Roth in the sixties, the era in which the book is set. It is about the love relationship between the two characters: Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin. He is a poor Newark boy, and she’s from the suburban Short Hills.
The story is narrated from the point of view of the protagonist, Neil, who is a 23-year-old Jewish man who lives with his uncle and aunt. Both of them are simple and modest workers with an unusual personality. A veteran of the army, Neil works in a library and he doesn’t have any particular project or ambition to look forward to.
On the other hand, Brenda and her family, composed of her parents, her oldest brother, Ronald, and her younger sister, Julie, are completely different. They are pretty rich and interested in social life and appearances, especially Mrs. Patimkin. At first these strong differences do not seem to frustrate the characters but the progress of the relationship became more and more evident. Brenda’ s parents do not like Neil because he is not from a wealthy family and does not have a great job either. Mr Patimkin is more open minded and tolerant, but Mrs. Patimkin is superficial with no regard for others’ feelings especially Brenda’s. In fact, Neil’s presence worsens the already conflicted mother-daughter relationship. Instead Ronald and Julie get on well with Neil because they only consider his personality and not his background.
Although the plot is not one of the most original things I’ve read, this book is particular for the subtle characterization of the main characters. In fact, thanks to the accurate descriptions, the reader is able to clearly define each character– from Aunt Gladys, Neil’s aunt, to Mr. Scapello, Neil’s boss.
While P. Roth does not describe characters physically, he describes their habits, lifestyle and behavior instead. Moreover, a lot of details the reader can get come from the dialogue.
For example, we do not know why Neil lives with his uncle and aunt. At first, the reader is led to believe that his parents are dead, until Brenda asks him and it is revealed that that is not the real reason why he lives with his uncle and aunt. It turns out they are not dead; they live in Florida, but Neil prefered to remain in Newark with his job. The relationship between the protagonist and his job in the library is particular. He likes working there but he considers it only as temporary work. Anyway, while he does not really care about his job, he enjoys observing people, especially a poor black kid whom Neil befriends.
More interested in his job are Brenda and his parents who do not find it enough. This is one of the reasons there is a constant tension in the young couple. Indeed they belong to two very different worlds and this makes Neil feel a strong sense of inadequacy.
The language that Roth uses is quite simple, but not banal. In fact the book alternates parts of narrative, which are the more difficult, and parts of speech that are easier for the informal way in which they are written.
Even if the reader knows from the start that the novel would not have a happy ending, it is is still an interesting book that shows and describes the 60’s reality in the US–it not only describes the social differences between Brenda and Neil, but also between white and black people.