Goodbye, Columbus is, when you get down to it, a story about a summer romance. It’s about many other things, class, race, Jewishness, but it begins at a country club swimming pool at the start of the summer, where Brenda Patimkin asks Neil Klugman to hold her glasses, and ends at the start of fall, when Brenda is back at school in Boston. The movie version came out in 1968 when I was seventeen years old and working in a jeans store on east Fordham Road in the Bronx, and every time a pretty girl walked into Kerkers to try on Landlubber bell-bottoms, I looked for the glimmer, the slightest trace, of Ali MacGraw. Who was no actress, not really, but she was able to give the banter in the early scenes – much taken directly from Philip Roth’s novella – an edgy, snooty sexiness. Goodbye, Columbus, the movie, is in most ways that matter, a mess. It’s crudely directed, cartoonish and clichéd. But those scenes between MacGraw and Richard Benjamin were, to a Jewish kid wrapping up his freshman year at Lehman College girlfriendless, aspirational. I hadn’t yet read any of Philip Roth’s books, but he already was starting to work his way into my life.
A little bit later in the summer of ’68, in a lounge chair at the bungalow colony in Rockland County where we went to escape, I picked up the copy of New American Review #3, a literary paperback/magazine where the lead story was Roth’s “Civilization and Its Discontents.” There is some familial disagreement about how NAR #3 found its way into our bungalow. I insist that I bought it at a drugstore “in town” because there was an article in it by Albert Goldman called “The Emergence of Rock,” and Rock was, in addition to the fruitless longing for a Brenda of my own, the subject that occupied most of my waking thoughts. My sister is equally convinced that she was the one who took it off the book rack, and we have argued about this for decades even though it obviously is of no importance.
What is of major importance is that “Civilization and Its Discontents,” narrated by a character named Alexander Portnoy, was shocking. It had never occurred to me that anyone could write like that, in that voice, about that subject matter, with that level of candor. It was an extended riff on the Jewish family – the Jewish mother in particular, and I had one – and the sexual rampage that goes on in the mind of the Jewish boy. Most people focused on the fact that there was an unusual amount of jerking off for a literary endeavor (although not unusual, perhaps, for the average kid from Newark, or the Bronx). But what floored me was not the sex stuff, but the slashing humor, the observations, the cadence of Jewish family conversation, the impoliteness of the whole thing. Like Tom Wolfe, whose articles on Phil Spector and Murray the K I’d devoured in another book that shaped my ideas about writing (The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby), Roth wrote in a breathless, hyper-fueled voice. It was like a release of everything we were not supposed to acknowledge, our repressed libidos, sure, but also the oppressive expectations of our parents, our teachers, who seemed most concerned with us being well-behaved, the one thing we most did not want to be. Roth, like Dylan and the Rolling Stones, gave us a permission slip. He was like a literary Lenny Bruce, only funnier.
I didn’t know while I was reading NAR #3 that the Philip Roth story was a preview of the book that would become Portnoy’s Complaint, and that the novel would become a sensation, and make him a celebrity, any of that. All I knew fifty years ago, in the summer of ’68, was that Goodbye, Columbus (the movie; I read the book a bit later) and “Civilization and Its Discontents” were giving me new ideas about what I wanted, what could be said and how. No writer of fiction meant so much to me for so long.