I came to “Goodbye, Columbus” a little late in the game: I’d already read most the Zuckerman books, “The Plot Against America,” “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and maybe five or six random Roth novels, but I’d never really had any strategy for reading them. If one looked interesting, and I had access to it, I’d get started. So my experiences in reading Roth have been a bit like watching a television show out of order, starting with the 6th season and then going back to the 2nd, and then jumping ahead again. I see different themes fading in and out of his work, growing in intensity, sometimes just starting, other times just ending.
“Goodbye, Columbus,” as Roth’s first book, is still a nice piece of work when read in this particular way…but I do wish that I’d at least read it before I read “Portnoy’s Complaint.” This collection is interesting as an introduction to Roth and the controversial portrait he paints (and will continue to paint) of Jewish Americans and of Newark, New Jersey. Apparently, it caused quite a stir in the Jewish community, and the exclamation-overload of “Portnoy’s Complaint” was a direct reaction to the criticism he continued to receive for a full decade. In other words, I read the reaction before I read the initial statement.
The novella itself (“Goodbye, Columbus”) is a piece of work that also seems to have echoes and parallels in later Roth novels; it reminded me quite a bit of “The Ghost Writer,” which is probably of similar length. Roth keeps both stories very uncomfortable by placing his protagonist in someone else’s home, keeping the timeframe short, making everyone around the protagonist a potential source of conflict…it’s the original “Meet the Parents,” really.
Still an engaging and interesting read, many years later, but do be warned that it is more affecting if read before Roth’s more intense later novels.