Summer Reading: Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth

It is 2000, nine months into the new millennium, and he has lived in London for nearly three years. He rents a flat with his girlfriend, on the edge of Brixton, near the back entrance to Brockwell Park. When they first moved here, they would walk across the park some evenings, to a restaurant under the railway arches in Herne Hill. Those days have passed. The combination of night shifts, his need to spend any free time in front of a computer, and their manic and incompatible personalities, has seen them drift apart. All of this has counted against them, stones thrown onto the balance of the scale.

At least he has given up the night shifts. He now works in a library in Tottenham. The journey to and from work, hilariously protracted, at least offers him the opportunity to read. He is currently making his way through Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus, after picking up a tattered second hand copy from the Bookmongers store on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton. He’d avoided reading Philip Roth until picking up Portnoy’s Complaint from a stall on the South Bank during his early months in London. Roth’s voice had entertained him in that novel, the broad, antic intelligence of his style, and the hilariousness of sexual misadventures. In contrast, he finds Goodbye Columbus almost unbearably sad.

One Friday night, his girlfriend doesn’t return home, after going to a party with work colleagues. He lies alone in bed, and after briefly analyzing his feelings about this development, he decides that he is mostly relieved. He spends the morning quietly, feeding the two cats (her cats), cooking a breakfast of fried eggs and tomatoes over the antique stove, listening to the radio. The news offers reports of the success of British rowers success at the Sydney Olympics, and of Reggie Kray, released from prison to die. It is a bright hot day. After breakfast, he sits out in the garden, to enjoy the sun. He sits on the step by the scruffy patio, beside an old, corroded exercise bike, smoking a cigarette and reading Goodbye Columbus. He finds the garden an uncomfortable place. When he moved into the flat, the landlady had made him promise to tend to the garden, but bindweed has grown through the plants, the lawn growing dry and tatty under the summer heat, like the pelt of a dead animal. Later, he will experience a recurring nightmare that he has left evidence of a terrible crime in the shed of that garden, a sense of persecution which will haunt him long after those days.

Eventually, he decides to leave the flat. He walks across Brockwell Park, towards the Herne Hill entrance, and visits the restaurant under the railway arches. He orders a pot of mussels, a meal that will always remind him of late childhood and a family holiday, probably his last, to the west coast of France. It was here he learned to appreciate the delicacy of the quick salty flesh released form the black shells. He drinks two beers will his meal, while making his way to the end of Goodbye Columbus, where Neil Klugman loses Brenda Patimkin and returns to his work in the library. The sadness he experiences during the final paragraphs is rawer than anything he has allowed himself to feel about those last months. After lunch, he wanders back across Brockwell Park, the bright sky opening over him, the hill exposing him to the city. Men play football on the five aside pitch, the raw earth almost orange under the sun. A passenger jet hangs low in the sky. He feels a sense of peace in this moment: that despite the upheaval he faces, the city has accepted him.

A few weeks later, coming back from London after the last Tube has passed, he will catch a train to Herne Hill. To save time, he decides to cut through the park, scaling the gates. The night is clear and bright, and as he climbs the path across the hill, he feels as though he has been accepted into a forbidden, equivocal world. Ahead of him, he spies a man and a woman, waiting on the brow of the hill. As he grows closer, he sees that they are walking two Japanese fighting dogs, the white fur glowing under moonlight. Everyone watches as he walks up the path. Although the couple offer no challenge, they follow him at a distance as he heads out of the park, the dogs panting, straining at the leads. The next morning, he will wake alone, fully dressed, with bruises on both arms and struggle to put together the events of the night.

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