The sporting-goods trees work fabulously and comically as symbols, imagery, and allegory. That's right, Roth killed three birds with one stone with this one. As a symbol they work to convey the Patimkins's upward mobility and seeming fulfillment of one very popular and potent version of the American dream. They also present vivid imagery, helping us visualize the lush, green, and oh-so-sporty opulence of Short Hills. As we discuss at length in "What's Up With the Title?," Neil's journey to the suburbs is meant as a rough allegory for the journeys of explorer-conquers like Christopher Columbus to the "new world."
The sporting-goods trees help make this allegory visible. Those discovered and conquered new worlds were often paradises full of lush natural beauty. The Patimkin trees are a sporty consumers' comic parallel to that. For those of you with an eye for Biblical allusion, the tree of knowledge probably leaps to your mind. If Neil partakes of the tree of the sporting life, he might fall away from his "real" purpose in life—working in the library.
But sports aren't really the problem between Neil and Brenda. Instead, sports might well be a big part of what attracts them to each other in the first place. They both like to play physical and psychological games of all sorts. Neil even compares making love with Brenda to a game. Check this out:
How can I describe loving, Brenda? It was so sweet, as though I'd finally scored that twenty-first point. (3.125)
This is what Neil thinks after the first time he and Brenda have sex. He's making a comparison between sex with Brenda and winning a ping-pong game against her little sister, Julie. Now that's not weird or anything…
Above all, the sporting motifs are symbolic of the playful intent of this book. Though there are plenty of important themes in the book, it never loses its sense of humor and play. Roth himself has said that while Goodbye, Columbus "has a kind of sad or melancholy edge to it, [it is] a comic book, and the situation [is] funny, very often" (source).