Most helpful positive review
on April 25, 2004
I'm not a huge fan of Roth at all, and when discussing him, I always seem to forget that he wrote these stories. It really does seem like the work of a different author; a brighter, more clever and inventive one; namely, younger. Maybe the mold of cynicism just set around him at a certain point as he aged, in which case Goodbye, Colombus stands as his first and last good work.
First of all, the writing is first-rate modern American, a light but not overly breezy style, something like Bellow. Especially in the title story, the subtle humor is very effective, and he has a Salingerian gift for making the last sentence of a paragraph resonate. The themes, also, that continue throughout the stories are well-developed and intriguing; in 'Defender of the Faith,' he shows how a very convincing sociopath takes advantage of his Jewish identity and uses it as a weapon; in a story the title of which I can't remember, a young boy rebels against the oppressive Jewish instruction of his elders; then, later, in 'Eli the Fanatic,' Roth shows a man discovering solace in the stark rituals of traditional Judaism. The issue is examined from many angles. 'Epstein' is more suggestive of his later work and somehwat distasteful, very bleak, but a convincing portrait of an aging and frustrated Jewish man. 'You can't tell a man by the song he sings' is lighter and has little relation to the theme of Judaism, in case you were beginning to think Roth couldn't write about anything else.
The title story is easily the best; the rest are just accesories. While the romance which it depicts never really seems justified (what does she see in him to begin with?), the writing is superlative and the characters interesting, and the semitragic conclusion more moving than it really should be. In this story, Roth displays a delicacy which is foremost among the things he inexplicably loses later on; he seems to like these characters, even the spoiled and decadent family, and stops to linger on minor details with a real zest for description.
Reading these stories made me think I had judged Roth too quickly after reading only two of his books; I read another, and was disappointed again. Stick to this one.