In the summer between my freshman and sophomore year in college I got a postcard from a boy in my sociology class. It read something like this: "Please, read Goodbye, Columbus right now."
So I did.
In the summer between my daughter's freshman and sophomore year in college, she stood in front of the section of the bookshelf dedicated exclusively to Roth and suggested that I read every last one of them; why not, as I was already more than halfway home.
So I am, reading through the gaps, going back to re-read some of the others, and writing about it here.
I still do not know if the Goodbye, Columbus recommendation was meant as congratulations - good for you, you didn't end up like Brenda Patimkin - or as a caution - watch out or you'll end up like Brenda Patimkin. The sender was a snarky boy long before someone gave that mix of arrogance and insecurity a label, so I assume it was the latter. Like Neil, the book's protagonist, he tended to look down his nose to maintain his balance.
Irrelevant. I was caught right away: I was reading about the mother yeast of Jewish suburbs, the progenitor of my newer neighborhood in Skokie, Illinois, which we sometimes lied and referred to as Evanston. My block was ambivalence incarnate. Technically, we lived in the Jewish ghetto of Skokie, but we lived in a street that paid taxes and sent the kids to school in goyishe Evanston. We could choose who we wanted to be on any given day: newcomers one generation's Russian accents away from the old country, or assimilated pillars of the community.
We could take a little whisk broom and rid the kitchen of crumbs every Passover, like my grandparents, or we could agree that school was too important for the kinder to stay home for the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
We spent a tremendous amount of energy trying to figure out where we sat on the Jewish American continuum. Or was it the American Jewish continuum? We weren't even sure which part of our identity came first. The fact that I have already used the words goyishe and kinder, which I never use - those are my parents' and grandparents' words - gives you an inkling of the level of confusion.
Philip Roth was going to help me figure things out. I never bought the business about him being a self-hating Jew, and by the way, has anyone noticed that we rarely see writers taken to task for being self-hating WASPs? It's as though we expect Jewish writers to be cheerleaders to compensate us for all the other tsuris - there I go again - we've had to endure. And I don't buy the misogyny business, either, at least not completely, but I'm getting ahead of myself. The point is, the long-ago postcard began a relationship that continued until The Breast collided with collegiate feminism and lost; a relationship that picked up again when my daughter took notice and set me back on this path.
An editor I've been fortunate to work with offered to get a note to Roth, if I wanted to tell him what his books mean to me, but the writer in me finds posting less intimidating than that personal note, which I have tried and failed to compose numerous times. I just want to talk about the books, not as a critic, not as a writer, not even as a long-ago English Lit major, but simply as a devoted reader among many, some of whom I hope will reply.
Karen Stabiner's novel, Getting In, will be published in March 2010. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.