The Swamp of Prosperity1
Goodbye, Columbus is a first book but it is not the book of a beginner. Unlike those of us who came howling into the world, blind and bare, Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair, and teeth, speaking coherently. At twenty-six he is skillful, witty, and energetic and performs like a virtuoso. His one fault, and I don’t expect all the brethren to agree that it is a fault, is that he is so very sophisticated. Sometimes he twinkles too much. The New York Times has praised him for being “wry.” One such word to the wise ought to be sufficient. Mr. Roth has a superior sense of humor (see his story “Epstein”), and I think he can count on it more safely than on his “wryness.”
His subject, to narrow it down for descriptive purposes, is Jewish life in suburban New Jersey and New York, the comfortable, paradoxical life of the Jew in prosperous postwar America. Neil Klugman, the hero of the long title story, twenty-three years of age, is different in many ways from the heroes of Jewish stories of the 30’s and 40’s. His appetites are more boyish, his thoughts more shrewd. He is strong on observation, a little less strong on affection. His prototypes were far more sentimental. They were more doting, and also more combative. Neil is very little concerned with his parents, who have gone for the summer, or with his aunt who wants to fill him in their absence with pot roast and soda pop. He is something of an outsider; his fictional ancestor was a misfit, a sad sack, pure burlap, weirdly incompetent and extremely unworldly, as incoherent in the face of injustice as Billy Budd himself, a stranger to good manners, but for all of that easily moved, honest, and good-hearted. The burlap hero could never keep a job or hold a girl. He was always sure to be shortchanged on the bus and if he went into the Automat for a cup of coffee he would scald himself. On the Jewish side he was descended from the shlimazl, obviously; on the Russian, from the poor clerk of Gogol’s story “The Cloak”; in American literature he takes his descent from the pure youth (relatively pure) of Anderson’s “I’m a Fool”—“Gee whiz! How could I pull such a dumb trick!” The burlap has gone out of fashion now, and in the stories of Mr. Roth there are only patches of the grand old fabric. It was during the depression that burlap had its finest hour. Before our present prosperous and bureaucratic era began, poor Feigenbaum belonged to the Jewish cafoni, the Little People. Now our more selfish desires and more complex motives have received a sharp stimulus. Possessions have a new glamor. Even burlap has changed. Madison Avenue people tint it and hang their windows with it, so it must cost more. Probably nylon is no dearer. In any case, the hero of Jewish fiction two decades ago knew nothing of Jewish suburbs, country clubs, organized cancer fund drives, large sums of money, cars, mink, or jewelry. The burlap hero assumed that the social order was of course wicked, base, and harsh. But then the Mammon of Unrighteousness in those days had a smaller wardrobe. He might sometimes appear as Uncle Willie the haughty manufacturer from Riverside Drive, in spats, a cold Uppman cigar in his teeth. But now he wears Ivy League clothes, his hair is cut tight to his head, and his name is Legion. The stories of Mr. Roth show the great increase of the power of materialism over us. (I beg leave to remind you that I am neither Karl Marx nor the editorial writer for Life.) I don’t want to suggest that Mr. Roth simply exchanges the burlap for the nylon, the rugged for the smooth, naivety for sophistication; only that he has a greater interest in society and in manners and is aware of a great change in the condition of the Jews.
It is entirely clear that he is not satisfied with what Jewish life in the United States has become and though his criticism is usually made laughingly there are moments when it isn’t possible to laugh. A story like “Defender of the Faith” with its portrait of the scheming Private Grossbart dries up the grin on the reader’s face, and “Goodbye, Columbus,” pleasant and witty as it is, reveals something that is far worse than the corruption of an individual—the vacuity and mindlessness of Pig Heaven. There exist Jewish writers who think that ours are the best of all possible suburbs in the best of all possible Americas. In the final pages of Marjorie Morningstar, Mamaroneck is glorified. There we are shown a pious and wiser Marjorie, purified of her earlier follies. But to Mr. Roth all is far from well in Mamaroneck. He seems to doubt that the highest prizes of existence have really been moved from the ascetic foundation on which they have always before rested onto the new foundations of money and “normalcy.” I think that we must, on the evidence, doubt along with him.
The condition revealed in “Goodbye, Columbus” is really too grave for irony, and that is why Mr. Roth’s “wryness” appears to me inadequate. There’s a lot of mileage to be gotten out of kidding costly Jewish weddings, plastic surgery, and similar nonsense, but Mr. Roth wants to go deeper, farther, and the wryness after some time becomes the expression of his discontent with the inadequacy of his method. For, to put it as simply as I can, Mr. Roth wants to make a contrast of spirit and worldly goods.
Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin, who are having a love affair during the summer vacation, come down to New York together, she to shop for clothes and to obtain a diaphragm, he to give her his support on such a difficult occasion. “The doctor’s office,” he says, “was in the Squibb Building, which is across from Bergdorf Goodman’s and so was a perfect place for Brenda to add to her wardrobe.” While she is being fitted, Neil wanders into St. Patrick’s and there he makes a little speech to himself. “Can I call the self-conscious words I spoke prayer? At any rate, I called my audience God. God, I said, I am twenty-three years old. I want to make the best of things. Now the doctor is about to wed Brenda to me, and 1 am not entirely certain that this is for the best. What is it I love, Lord? Why have I chosen? Who is Brenda? . . . If we meet you at all, God, it’s that we’re carnal and acquisitive, and thereby partake of you. I am carnal and I know you approve. I just know it. But how carnal can I get? I am acquisitive. Where do I turn now in my acquisitiveness? Where do we meet? Which prize is you?
It was an ingenious meditation, and suddenly I felt ashamed. I got up and walked out, and the noise of Fifth Avenue met me with an answer:
Which prize do you think, shmuck? Gold dinnerware, sporting-goods-trees, nectarines, garbage disposals, Patimkin Sink, Bonwit Teller—.
Brenda’s father is the manufacturer of Patimkin Sinks. A good enough old fellow at home, kindly and hospitable in an empty sort of way, he is formidable at business. He will buy split-level houses and new cars for his children when they marry but he will require Neil, should he become his daughter’s suitor, to give up his silly job at the Public Library where he has no prospects and to become capable of giving her garbage disposals and gold dinnerware.
Certainly Neil’s meditation is curious. When I had finished the story I went back and read it again. It seems a little too cozy on the third reading. Why should it please God that we are carnal or acquisitive? I don’t see that at all. I assume Mr. Roth is saying that it would be a deadly offense to confuse God with Bonwit Teller and garbage disposals, with goods and money. He doesn’t say it well; he is confused, nervous, wry, and somewhat too aware that this is a shocking way to address God. And in St. Patrick’s, too, perhaps displeasing the Catholics as well as the Jews. Had Mr. Roth plainly said “worldly goods versus the goods of the spirit” he might have avoided all this wry awkwardness. But now we have grasped his meaning: the world is too much with us, and there has never been so much world. For, in the past, what could money buy that can compare with the houses, the sinks, the garbage disposals, the Jags, the minks, the plastic surgery enjoyed by the descendants of those immigrants who passed through Ellis Island? To what can we compare this change? Nothing like it has ever hit the world; nothing in history has so quickly and radically transformed any group of Jews. It is this change which is the real subject of “Goodbye, Columbus,” and not the love affair. Love, duty, principle, thought, significance, everything is being sucked into a fatty and nerveless state of “wellbeing.” My mother used to say of people who had had a lucky break, in the old Yiddish metaphor, “They’ve fallen into the shmaltz-grub”—a pit of fat. The pit has expanded now into a swamp, and the lucky ones may be those who haven’t yet tasted the fruits of prosperity.
The matter becomes even plainer in “Eli, the Fanatic.”2 Into the suburban community of Woodenton comes a school for Orthodox children, refugees; the strange figure of a European Jew in black garments is seen in the supermarket and the Jewish residents are alarmed and angry. Eli Peck, the lawyer, writes to Mr. Tzuref at the school, “Wooden-ton is a progressive suburban community whose members, both Jewish and Gentile, are anxious that their families live in comfort and beauty and serenity.” Eli’s friend Teddie says to him about old-fashioned Orthodoxy, “It’s a goddam hideaway for people who can’t face life, if you ask me. . . . There’s peace in this town, Eli—and a good healthy relationship between its modern Jews and Protestants. . . . Last week, Jimmy Knudson took a group from Kiwanis to the Unitarian Church, and I sat there, Eli, and I was impressed. Nobody wailing or crying or any of that stuff. . . . And the priest, Eli, was dressed like you and me, Eli, and in his sermon he quoted from the Atlantic Monthly magazine, for Christ sake.” So, in rhythms that come straight from the Yiddish, Teddie states his case. Peace. Good healthy relationship. Nullity. Eli sends his own best tweed suit to the European Jew in black, and then, finding the old garments at his door, puts them on and frightens everyone. The little story is touching and funny, and it tells a great deal about the situation of the Jews in the Mamaronecks and Woodentons of this country.
Not all Jewish readers have shown themselves pleased with Mr. Roth’s stories. Here and there one meets people who feel that the business of a Jewish writer in America is to write public relations releases, to publicize everything that is nice in the Jewish community and to suppress the rest, loyally. This is not at all the business of Jewish writers or of writers of any kind, and those touchy persons who reproach us with not writing the Jewish Elsie Dinsmore over and over again are very like the Russian authorities who created socialist realism. No quantity of Jewish Elsie Dinsmores from Mamaroneck will decrease anti-Semitic feeling. The loss to our sense of reality is not worth the gain (if there is one) in public relations. This is precisely what Mr. Roth is telling us in “Eli, the Fanatic.” What plagues Eli is the false image which fear and a hateful spirit of accommodation have created. The tweed suit is no more his than the black garments. He is false to himself in both, and it is this falsehood that does him the greatest harm.
My advice to Mr. Roth is to ignore all objections and to continue on his present course.
1 A review of Goodbye, Columbus, by Philip Roth, Houghton Mifflin, 298 pp., $3.75.
2 Published in COMMENTARY, April 1959.—Ed.