By Philip Roth
New York: Bantam Book, 1981 from 1959 original
ISBN # 0-553-23408-0
216 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2012

I had read this book of short stories back in about 1960 and remembering liking it, but having no other memories of it, but decided to return and re-read it. I am overjoyed about my decision. The stories are marvelous and Philip Roth is a wonderful writer.

Most of the stories are about ordinary people and fairly simple situations in their lives. Yet he writes the bits and pieces of everyday life with feeling, sensitivity and a brilliance that raises the simple everyday to the level of serious literature.

The title story is a story of a short love affair between Niel and Brenda, two young folks in their late teens or early 20s. They have a torrid affair, clearly more related to youthful sexual exploration than love. There is much in their lives that are conflicts. He’s a young man of the city, poor, struggling, but in a local college. She’s suburban, of a wealthy and rising family, attends an Ivy League school. However, for both, the sex is awesome and the summer and early fall pass.

The mid autumn brings the end of their affair. It’s no big deal and the story is less about the relationship itself that a snapshot of a typical incident in a changing time.

All of the stories save one center in Jewish culture in America at the end of the 1950s and when many values and ways of life are changing. In The Conversion of the Jews we read of young Ozzie, bright, innocent and honest who asks some hard questions of his rabbi about the nature of God. The rabbi, used to obedient kids who just take his stock answers doesn’t deal well with Ozzie’s insistent and seemingly challenging questions. He comes down hard on Ozzie even using and threatening physical punishment. Ozzie creates a spectacular moment which draws full community attention and when all is settled and Ozzie safe; he gets the whole neighborhood to chant with him: “Promise me, promise me, you’ll never hit anybody about God.”

There is a wide variety of types of stories: I’ve mentioned the young lovers and the believing boy who was inquisitive about the nature of God. We follow the same sorts of simple stories with a Jewish soldier trying to con his way out of the Pacific Theater of WWII, and the wandering husband in Epstein.

However, Roth saves the best story for last. Eli, The Fanatic is a deeply touching and brilliant story of a home of seemingly Eastern Jews who have an orphanage for kids from their village. However, it is in an upscale suburban neighborhood in the U.S. The neighbors, while mainly Jewish, are reformed Jews and simply can’t deal with the sort of fundamentalist Eastern Jews who are sort of reminiscent of the Jews in Fiddler on the Roof without the humor and music.

As I was reading these stories I was reading though, making notes story by story and enjoying the writing and variety. Then when I got to that last story, Eli, The Fanatic, I was simply blown away. In the most direct way I can say – in more that 65 years of reading, that story was one of the most powerful and touching pieces of literature I have ever read. I was reeling and stunned and could hardly speak. In that story particularly Philip Roth demonstrated himself as an astonishing author.

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett