Study Guide

Goodbye, Columbus Summary

By Philip Roth

Goodbye, Columbus Summary

The narrator meets Brenda Patimkin for the first time when she asks him to hold her glasses so she can dive in the pool. When he gets home that afternoon, he finds her number in the phone book and calls her. She isn't home. His Aunt Gladys (he lives with his aunt and uncle) feeds him some dinner, and then he calls Brenda again. This time she answers. He rapidly introduces himself as Neil Klugman. He was at the Green Lane Country Club as the guest of his cousin, Doris Klugman. Brenda agrees to let him come and meet her when she's playing tennis that evening.

He drives from where he lives—the big city of Newark, New Jersey—up to the opulent suburb of Short Hills, New Jersey. He finds the tennis courts and watches Brenda beat her opponent fiercely. She's a beast. After the match, Brenda joins him. He's annoyed that Brenda says she goes to school in Boston, instead of naming the school. He can't stand snobby kids that go to fancy colleges. He himself graduated from a state college in Newark. He learns that Brenda has had a nose job, and that her brother might have one soon. This irritates him too. Brenda asks him if he'll "stop being nasty" (1.130) if he's allowed to give her a kiss. And then they kiss. Well, that was easy.

At the club the next day, Brenda coaxes Neil into the pool and they swim. Under the umbrellas, Brenda tells Neil she feels like he's chasing her. He says that she's the one who invited him to the club. She accuses him of being "nasty" (2.35) to her again, and he apologizes. They continue to argue briefly, but before long the two are hanging out by the pool, falling in love. Late in the afternoon they are at the bottom of the pool holding each other, when suddenly Brenda breaks free and goes to the top. She has just seen her brother Ron down at the bottom of the pool, too. Uh oh. Ron and Brenda talk sports for a while and then, finally, Brenda introduces Neil and Ron. She tells Neil he's coming to dinner at the Patimkin house that night. Slightly perturbed at the lack of advance notice, Neil goes off to call Aunt Gladys and let her know he won't be home for dinner.

The Patimkins eat in a dining room instead of at the kitchen table like at Aunt Gladys's, so you know they're fancy. Mr. Patimkin reminds Neil of his dad. He doesn't care for Mrs. Patimkin, even though she's the best looking person there. When Neil looks out the windows he can see the back yard and the big oak trees. He thinks they are "sporting-goods trees" (2.75) because, well, they are full of sporting goods, whatever that means. There is a lot of eating and not much talking. The conversation that does occur reveals that Brenda and her mother have big problems with each other. After dinner, Neil and Brenda watch Brenda's sister Julie play basketball with Mr. Patimkin. Brenda complains to Neil that her mother "hates" (2.151) her, but she gets whatever she wants from her dad. Neil notices that Mr. Patimkin is letting Julie win, and letting her make her own rules. Soon, Neil is roped into playing with Julie, too. Somehow, against his will, he lets her win. Brenda informs him that everybody does.

The next morning Neil goes to his job in Newark as a librarian at the public library. Before work he watches the city come to life. He loves Newark. On his way into the library he notices a little black boy growling fiercely at the statue of a lion that guards the entrance. Neil isn't fond of his coworkers in the library. He doesn't want to stay working in the library and end up like them.

A little while before lunchtime the black boy comes into the library and asks Neil where the "heart section" (3.8) is. Neil figures out that he means "art" not "heart" and tells him where to find the art books. After lunch John McKee, one of Neil's coworkers and a total bigot, complains to Neil about the boy spending time with the art books. He suggests that black people won't handle books with care. Neil goes up and finds the boy looking at a book of Paul Gauguin's paintings of Tahiti. The boy loves them.

After work Neil goes to the Patimkins's house. Brenda and her parents are about to leave to take Ron to the airport. Brenda tells Neil he's going to be Julie's babysitter. He is not pleased, but does what she says. At first he ignores Julie and looks around the Patimkin house a little. In the basement, he finds a refrigerator full of fruit the same way the trees are full of sporting goods. Julie catches him putting cherries in his pocket. He agrees to play ping-pong with her. When she tries her usual tricks, he makes it clear that he won't let her win, and that he won't give her any special treatment. She gets mad and stomps off before Neil is able to beat her. So much for that.

That night he and Brenda "ma[k]e love" (3.124) for the first time, on the couch in the living room. When he gets to Aunt Gladys's, he calls Brenda and they pretend they are sleeping next to each other. Neil hopes he gets to actually spend the night with her and wake up with her soon.

Over the next few weeks Neil's life is full of the boy and Brenda. One day when the boy doesn't show up in the morning, an old white man comes and wants to check out the Gauguin book. Neil tells him the book is on hold for another patron, and that he'll call when the book becomes available.

That night, Brenda tells Neil she loves him. By making him play a sexy game of hide and seek in the pool, she gets him to say he loves her, too. After that he and Brenda spend every night together, hanging out, eating fruit, and watching movies at the local drive-in. Brenda invites him to spend the week at her place while he's on vacation from the library. That Friday, before he goes to work, Aunt Gladys is a little upset that he'll be leaving. At the library, the man who's after the Gauguin book is back. Again, Neil says the book is on hold. Then Neil learns he'll be promoted when he gets back from vacation. When the boy comes in that afternoon, Neil tries to get him to get a library card and check the book out. At first the boy thinks Neil is accusing him of doing something bad, and then of trying to get rid of him. Finally, he understands Neil is only concerned that the book will be checked out. The boy tells him not to worry. When Neil is driving up to Brenda's he worries about what will happen to the boy and the book in his absence.

When Neil gets to Brenda's he learns that Ron and his girlfriend Harriet are getting married. After dinner Brenda shows Neil the guestroom. Ron comes in when he's unpacking and chats with him. He tells Neil he likes music and says that he'll let him listen to his "Columbus record" (5.51). Then Neil hears Brenda and her mother start to fight downstairs. Mrs. Patimkin is mad that Neil is staying over because he'll be extra work. She's also mad because Brenda is super spoiled and doesn't help with chores. After the family leaves for an evening excursion, Neil comforts Brenda.

Over that week Brenda gets Neil into a regular routine of exercising in the morning, reading in bed in the evening, and then joining her in her bedroom at night. Most nights he hears music playing from Ron's bedroom. One night he hears a recorded voice singing "…goodbye, Columbus…goodbye…" (5.142). On the seventh night of his stay, he dreams that he and the boy from the library are in a boat docked at a tropical island. Suddenly the boat starts to move away, and the women on the island start singing "Goodbye, Columbus…goodbye" (5.142). Neither Neil nor the boy want to leave. After the dream, he goes to stay with Brenda in her bed and almost gets caught by Ron when he sneaks back to his room.

Brenda tells Neil he can stay another week, so he unpacks what he packed. Brenda goes to the airport with her family to meet Harriet, who is coming in to be married to Ron. Neil is upset because Brenda will be leaving for school the day after the wedding. When she comes home early because the plane is late, Neil asks her to buy a diaphragm (a contraceptive device). She doesn't want to and they have a big fight. The next day Brenda goes into the city with Harriet. Neil drives to Mr. Patimkin's business, Patimkin Sinks, and sees Ron at his first day on the job. Mr. Patimkin hints that Neil could have a job there too if he married Brenda.

That night, Brenda tells Neil that she tried to make a doctor's appointment to get a diaphragm but hung up the phone when they asked if she was married. Neil says he'll go with her into the city to get one. Four days later, they go into the city and Brenda gets the diaphragm. After that the family is in a hectic state, preparing for the wedding that's days away. On Sunday night, the day before the Labor Day wedding, Ron finally plays Neil his "Columbus record." It turns out to be a recording of Ron's graduation ceremony from Ohio State University.

The day after the wedding Brenda goes back to school in Boston, and Neil returns to his job at the library. He misses her terribly and can't wait for her to come visit him over the Jewish holidays. At the last minute, she says she can't come and asks him to come see her. She picks him up from the train station. When they arrive at the hotel room she rented, she tells him her parents found the diaphragm in her drawer at home. They know she and Neil were having sex during the summer and are very upset. She shows him the letters her parents sent her. He accuses her of purposely leaving the diaphragm where they would find it. Then they have a huge fight and they break up. Neil goes back to Newark, ready to go back to work in the library. And there you have it, folks.