Thursday, September 20, 2007

"Ain't that the fuckin life?"


[Neil Klugman, 23, and a librarian at the Newark Public Library, had volunteered to go check on the young Negro boy that shortly before had stopped at the first-floor information desk and asked about the location of the art books. The other librarians were suspicious that this little boy, supposedly like others, hid in the stacks and did things that caused “warts on their dirty little hands.”]


Up on Stack Three I found the boy. He was seated on the glass-brick floor holding an open book in his lap, a book, in fact, that was bigger than his lap and had to be propped up by his knees. By the light of the window behind him I could see the hundreds of spaces between the hundreds of tiny black corkscrews that were his hair. He was very black and shiny, and the flesh of his lips did not so much appear to be a different color as it looked to be unfinished and awaiting another coat. The lips were parted, the eyes wide, and even the ears seemed to have a heightened receptivity. He looked ecstatic – until he saw me, that is.

“Hey, mister,” the boy said after a minute, “where is this?”

“Where is what.”

“Where is these pictures? These people, man, they sure does look cool. They ain’t no yelling or shouting here, you could just see it.”

He lifted the book so I could see. It was an expensive large-sized edition of Gauguin reproductions. The page he had been looking at showed an 8 ½ x 11 print, in color, of three native women standing knee-high in a rose-colored stream. It was a silent picture, he was right.

“That’s Tahiti. That’s an island in the Pacific Ocean.”

“That ain’t no place you could go, is it? Like a ree-sort?”

“You could go there, I suppose. It’s very far. People live there …”

“Hey, look, look here at this one.” He flipped back to a page where a young brown-skinned maid was leaning forward on her knees, as though to dry her hair. “Man,” the boy said, “that’s the fuckin life.” The euphoria of his diction would have earned him eternal banishment from the Newark Public Library and its branches had John or Mr. Scapello – or, God forbid, the hospitalized Miss Winney – come to investigate.

“Who took these pictures?” he asked me.

“Gauguin. He didn’t take them, he painted them. Paul Gauguin. He was a Frenchman.”

“Is he a white man or a colored man?”

“He’s white.”

“Man,” the boy smiled, chuckled almost, “I knew that. He don’t take pictures like no colored men would. He’s a good picture taker … Look, look, look here at this one. Ain’t that the fuckin life?

- Philip Roth, Goodbye Columbus, 1959.

* * *

I first saw the movie Goodbye Columbus when I was seventeen years old, during the summer before my senior year in high school. By the time I was nineteen I think I had seen it thirteen times. And read the book two or three times. I had the dialogue of all the characters committed to memory.

Why did this movie make such an impact on me? I think that more than any other movie that I’d seen at the time Goodbye Columbus represented all that I thought (at the time) was good … or rather ...

Ain’t that the fuckin life!"
... Why?

4 The sex. Premarital sex. Particularly Brenda and Neil having sex in the shower. Probably about two-thirds of Goodbye Columbus is about sex. At the time it was as close to porn as I'd ever experienced.

4
Ali McGraw. I was in love with her at the time.

4
Brenda Patimkin was sassy, smart, spoiled, playful, beautiful, and went to Radcliffe. If a nerd like Neil Klugman could get a girl this, there was hope for me.

4 Life centered around the country club.

4
Tennis

4 In the movie, Ron Patimkin, after working out and taking a shower, would hang his jockstrap on the back of the bathroom door to dry right where everybody could see it. I was awe struck by this. (In the book, he hung his "supports" on the shower nozzle.)

4 “Goodbye Columbus” referred to graduating from Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio. This was significant because I, too, went to a Big-Ten university.

4
Ron Patimkin went to work for his father’s company and was expected to work his way up from the loading dock to a vice president. That would take a few weeks.

4
Like my family, the Patimkin’s would eat au naturel in the dining room, served by a Negro maid.

4
Brenda’s great retort to Gloria Feldman, a guest at her brother’s wedding reception.
GLORIA: Well, our little Radcliffe smarty, what have you been doing all summer?
BRENDA: Growing a penis.

4 Music by The Association. Yes, I still have the soundtrack on vinyl, as well as a latter-issued CD.

4
The book actually used the word fucking. It was the first time I recall having read it in print. Remember, I grew up in the Bible belt, not New Jersey. (In the movie the dialogue did not use the word fucking. The young black boy simply said, "Ain't that the life?")


* * *

But more than anything else, the biggest connection I had to this movie came in the final scene. To me it was the corollary to the parable of the prodigal son.

Brenda, back at school in the fall after her summer of sex with Neil, receives two letters from her parents. Her mother had found Brenda’s diaphragm in her bottom drawer, under some sweaters. In the letter from her mother, Mrs. Patimkin wrote, “You have broken your parents’ hearts and you should know that. This is some thank you for all we gave you.” In the letter from her father, Brenda reads, “I am willing to forgive and call Buy Gones Buy Gones. … believe me I am not going to start hating my own flesh and blood.”

After Brenda shows the letters to Neil, they began discussing what she will do for the Thanksgiving holidays. Both of Brenda parents trust that she will never again see Neil Klugman. Her father suggests she bring home her college roommate.

“Brenda, the choices aren’t mine.” Neil states. “You can bring Linda or me. You can go home or not go home. That’s another choice. Then you don’t even have to worry about choosing between me or Linda.”

Brenda replied, “Neil, you don’t understand. They’re still my parents. They did send me to the best schools, didn’t they? They have given me everything I’ve wanted, haven’t they? Then how can I not go home? I have to go home.”


And that’s why I still call my mother every day.

* * *

We offer ourselves
to you then, world,
and come to you in search of Life.

- From the closing statement
in the commemorative record, Goodbye Columbus,
given to graduating seniors of Ohio State.

.

8 comments:

Cooper said...

I've never seen this movie or read the book. I'm going to make a point of doing both after reading your wonderful synopsis.

Paul said...

Cooper, seeing that it was written about 23 years before you were born, it should be considered a "classic."

It described a period of time in the US before civil rights, campus unrest, and the sexual revolution.

somewhere joe said...

It's a seminal work... er let me rephrase that. A classic coming of age - aw fuck.

Matt said...

"Like my family, the Patimkin's would eat au naturel in the dining room, served by a Negro maid". Maybe I'm wrong in assuming this was tongue-in-cheek?

Regardelss - I absolutely HAVE to read/see this now. Thanks, Paul.

Paul said...

Joe, you always know just the right words!

Matt, sorry to disappoint you, but au natural only referred to eating in the formal dining room, casually dressed.

Gillian @ Indigo Blue said...

Well, it's on my list now. You did a good job here Paul-y-wog.
xo
Blue

john said...

Okay, two posts about this movie, I'm going to see it and I'm going to read the book.

Paul said...

Blue and JM: The movie's purely a period piece from the 60's. But if you like Philip Roth, go for it!