Good luck identifying a protagonist in any of Philip Roth’s stories. The good are never fully good, or they don’t stay very good for very long. Good and bad? It’s all relative, to one another, to community, to circumstance. Roth writes characters with the best intentions and the biggest flaws, a recipe for delightfully surprising fiction. How can you, as a reader, not be endeared to his quirky, sincere characters? Once you’re wrapped around his finger, Roth sends you through the wringer, revealing previous blind spots and facing you and his characters with questions of ethics and morality, of right and wrong. The only thing definitively good is Roth’s writing, with its ear for how people talk and a knack for expressing how they think.
All of Roth’s fiction in Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories* asks what it means to be Jewish in America. Is there a “right” way to be Jewish in America? How much do your neighbors, your peers, your Rabbis influence your Jewishness and your Americanness? These are questions of identity and often questions of conflict. They are an excellent foundation for short fiction because they drive characters apart more often than they drive them together.
Furthermore, these questions of identify are really proxies for larger questions of class, status, influence, questions which extend beyond the boundaries of Jewish-American. A boy asking a Rabbi if G-d could immaculately conceive a child. A community of “modern” Jews upset by the new orthodox Yeshiva on the hill outside of town. A poor Jewish boy in Newark who meets a wealthy Jewish girl who lives in a WASP-y suburb and has “fixed” the bump in her nose with cosmetic surgery. The recently enlisted Jewish soldier who tries to buddy up to his sergeant, also Jewish. These are questions of assimilation, of trying to be like white American protestants without losing what is essentially Jewish – whatever that is. Roth’s stories are particularly potent because, unlike other ethnic or religious minority groups in America, Roth’s white American Jews can pass as white American Protestants with a little bit of money and little bit of effort. And that possibility is at once intoxicating and frightening.
Since the debut of these stories more than half a century ago, the circumstances of the world have dramatically changed. Roth’s stories cut to the quick identity, class, and influence in America and, though the details might be dated, the fire and anxiety in these stories is as present as ever. Roth’s characters continue to crackle off the page and his stories continue to entertain and provoke.
*NB: Stories included in this volume: “The Conversion of the Jews,” “Defender of the Faith,” “Epstein,” “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings,” and “Eli, the Fanatic.”
Up Next: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark and A Good Man is Hard to Find and other stories by Flannery O’Connor
Why? Gotta cross O’Connor off of my English major List of Shame.