In Philip Roth's 1995 preface to Goodbye,
Columbus (1959), he lists the names of
23 writers he was reading at the time of that book's
composition. It's an authorial master stroke, with
enough believable names (Malamud, Bellow, Freud)
that you can easily make the mistake of taking an
artist at his word.
of Myself in Goodbye, Columbus
Everybody knows artists are famously coy in citing
their real influences. You'll relent on the
obvious--Roth admitting to Malamud, Bellow, and
Freud is hardly surprising--and stay elusive where
Thus it's curious to me why Roth didn't list Walt
Whitman in his preface. Sure, you could argue that
citing Whitman is like citing Shakespeare; hardly
necessary, since to use the English language is to
acknowledge your debt.
Yet there are two words in the Roth novella
"Goodbye, Columbus," which I think owe a strong debt
to Whitman's use of them in "Song of Myself." Those
words are "wet" and "acquisitive."
Let's explore "acquisitive" first. It stands out no
matter where you read it, because it's by and large
a word you read, rather than one you use in
speaking. So any writer who uses it better be
careful, for he'd be rightly accused of "writerly"
usage, which is to say, being hifalutin when you
don't have to be. Here's how Whitman's narrator uses
not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded
I see through the
broadcloth and gingham whether or no,
And am around,
tenacious, acquisitive, tireless....and can never
be shaken away (139).
Now here's how Roth's narrator, 23-year-old Neil
Klugman, uses it. For context, Klugman is sitting in
St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan, amusing
himself by formulating a half-assed prayer while his
girlfriend is seeing a doctor about getting a
If we meet You at
all, God, it's that we're carnal, and acquisitive,
and thereby partake of You. I am carnal, and I
know you approve, I just know it. But how carnal
can I get? I am acquisitive. Where do I turn now
in my acquisitiveness? Where do we meet? Which
prize is You? (100).
You need not be well-versed in Whitman to grasp the
parallels. Young Klugman is, frankly, acting like
for all of the reading he's done at Rutgers and the
public library, he's never come upon "Song of
Myself." If he had, he'd know one of the chief joys
of the Whitman-narrator-God's dissenting
transcendentalism is his embrace of all joys and
bodily freedoms, be they carnal, acquisitive, lazy,
heartfelt, or suicidal. Klugman is musing on the
conventional God of the bible when he should be
finding solace in the all-encompassing ubiquitous
ultra-deity at the heart of Whitman's oeuvre.
As for "wet": In "Goodbye, Columbus," the word is
central to one of the novella's thematic binaries:
the raw and natural versus the manufactured and
artificial. Here's how Brenda Patimkin, Klugman's
girlfriend, uses the word "wet" when playing a
poolside game with Klugman:
Why don't you go in
the water, and I'll wait for you and close my
eyes, and when you come back you'll surprise me
with the wet (52).
Like that? It's "wet" as a noun. It's not entirely
unheard of. The dictionary still says it's allowed.
And yet...it catches you off-guard each time you
read it. As with "acquisitive," it's a bit writerly.
And it, too, is arguably rooted in the
Whitman-narrator-God's usage of wet as a noun in
"Song of Myself." Here's an extended cut from "Song"
culminating in wet:
You sea! I resign
myself to you also....I guess what you mean,
I behold from the
beach your crooked inviting fingers,
I believe you
refuse to go back without feeling of me;
We must have a turn
together....I undress....hurry me out of sight of
soft...rock me in billowy drowse,
Dash me with
amorous wet....I can repay you (455).
Wow. While those six lines deserve limitless
dissertations, here I'll limit myself to noting one
parallel with the "Goodbye, Columbus" passage. In
both, there are twined acts of faith and
resignation, confidence and vulnerability. A man is
essentially closing his eyes in the belief his lover
(Brenda, or the sea) will return and hold him. While
the passage in "Song" is evocative of death and
Oedipal longings and other traits that make
comparing it to the "Goodbye, Columbus" passage
perhaps a foolish idea on my part, I'm still taken
in by the passages' shared use of "wet" as a noun in
a sensual context.
Moreover, there are parts of "Goodbye, Columbus"
that make me believe Roth was intent on only using
"wet" where he really needed to. For example, in the
story's famed first paragraph, it seems as if
Klugman takes pains to not use the word "wet" in
beautifully, and a moment later she was swimming
back to the side of the pool, her head of
short-clipped auburn hair held up, straight ahead
of her, as though it were a rose on a long stem.
She glided to the edge and then was beside me.
"Thank you," she said, her eyes watery though not
from the water (3).
Pay special attention to that last sentence.
Ilan Mochari is the author of the
Pushcart-nominated debut novel Zinsky
the Obscure (Fomite Press, 2013).
The novel earned rave reviews from Publishers
Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus. It was also
featured in the Boston
Globe and on Boston's NPR station. His
short stories and poetry have appeared or are
forthcoming in Keyhole,
Midway Journal, and elsewhere. Another
story received an honorable mention in a Glimmer
Train competition. He
has a B.A. in English from Yale University.