In Goodbye, Columbus, Neil Klugman meets and falls in love with Brenda Patimkin, the spoiled, attractive daughter of a middle-class Jewish family. The family has recently moved from Newark to the suburbs in Short Hills, New Jersey, where they have a large, comfortable home, typical of the nouveau riche class to which they belong. For Neil, however, Brenda and Short Hills represent an enticing version of a pastoral ideal. When he met her for the first time at a country club swimming pool, she was for him “like a sailor’s dream of a Polynesian maiden, albeit one with prescription sun glasses and the last name of Patimkin.” She has an older brother, Ron, a basketball star just graduating from Ohio State University, whose favorite record, “Goodbye, Columbus,” gives the story its title. She also has a kid sister, Julie, a younger version of Brenda, equally as smart and equally as spoiled.
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By contrast, Neil’s more humble family consists of parents, permanently absent in Arizona because of their asthma, and his Aunt Gladys, with whom he lives and who cooks his meals as well as her husband’s, her daughter’s, and her own—all different and all served at different times. Aunt Gladys is modeled on the stereotyped Jewish mama and has a funny accent, but she also demonstrates the most common sense and genuine humanity of any of the characters in the novella.
As their affair progresses, Neil and Brenda spend more and more time together at her family’s home in Short Hills, where at the end of the summer Neil is invited to spend a week of his vacation. They have sex clandestinely in her room every night. The family is suddenly plunged into a frenzy of activity when Ron announces his engagement to Harriet, his Ohio State sweetheart, and they decide to get married over Labor Day weekend. In all the turmoil that ensues, Brenda gets Neil an extension on his visit as well as an invitation to Ron’s wedding.
Neil is not sure whether he feels more love or lust for Brenda, and he debates with himself whether to ask her to marry him. Fearing rejection, he proposes instead that she get a diaphragm. At first, she demurs, but Neil argues that their lovemaking will be not only safer but also more enjoyable, at least for him. Still she demurs, and it becomes a contest of wills, like many of the other games played in the story. Finally, under Neil’s insistence, Brenda capitulates, and they go to New York together for her to be fitted with the device. While she is in the doctor’s office, Neil enters St. Patrick’s cathedral and questions himself and his feelings. He recognizes his carnality, his acquisitiveness, and his foolishness in coveting all that Brenda is and represents: “Gold dinnerware, sporting-goods trees, nectarines, garbage disposal, bumpless noses”—and the list goes on.
Ron’s wedding is a typical Jewish celebration, with too much food and champagne. The occasion provides Roth with further opportunities for satire, as Neil meets the rest of the family and Ron’s college friends. He gets considerable free advice from Leo Patimkin, one of Brenda’s uncles, who tells Neil that he has a good thing going with Brenda and he should not louse things up. Actually, in demanding that she get the diaphragm to please him, he already has begun to louse things up.
The sad end of the story comes when Brenda asks Neil to come to Boston for the Jewish holidays in the fall. Although he is not an observant Jew and has difficulty getting time off from his work at the Newark Public Library, Neil goes to the hotel that Brenda has booked for them. When he arrives, however, Brenda is deeply distressed. She has foolishly left her diaphragm at home, where her mother has found it and thereby discovered the affair. Her parents each write separate letters to her, telling her in their different ways of their shame and unhappiness. When Neil learns all this, he is shocked at Brenda’s carelessness but then realizes that leaving the device where it could be found may have been the result of an unconscious desire on her part to end the affair. As she has invited Neil to Boston ostensibly to continue their lovemaking and insists that he make every effort to get there, she obviously has some ambivalence (or perhaps Roth does) toward Neil. He finds it impossible now to go on with her, and he takes the train back to Newark, where he arrives just in time to begin work on the Jewish New Year.
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Neil Klugman, whose surname translated from Yiddish means “clever man,” is typical of Roth’s early heroes. Sophisticated, bright, and educated, he is nevertheless a schlemiel, a loser, someone who bungles golden opportunities that come his way. He is the prototype for Gabe Wallach in Letting Go, another loser, whose divided self prevents him from having satisfying and permanent relationships with others. Both have the knack, as Neil puts it, of turning winning into losing, so that the name “Klugman” comes to have an ironic implication. Nevertheless, Roth is hardly an advocate for the values represented by the Patimkin family, who are the principal and most obvious targets for his ridicule.