Newly paved and not yet striped, South Orange Avenue looks new and untouched. It's an old road, though, and it has a literary resonance worth a visit. After all, our own South Orange "Swede" brought Philip Roth to our collective attention in the fall, and Roth showed us the route from Newark to Short Hills, by way of the Reservation. In his debut novella, “Goodbye Columbus," Roth takes us for a ride along South Orange Avenue
The main character, who tells us the story, is Neil Klugman. Neil lives with his aunt and uncle in Newark, where he works at the Public Library. He falls hard for Brenda Patimkin, a student at Radcliffe, whose family lives in Short Hills. Aimless after his World War II army service, Neil spends a summer driving west from Newark in his aging Plymouth, through South Orange, to visit Brenda in the house that wartime prosperity bought; the narrator explains that “Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks had gone to war; no new barracks was complete until it had a squad of Patimkin sinks lined up in its latrine.” (page 43)
I traced Neil’s route from the center of Newark, by way South Orange Avenue, to where I imagine Brenda lived. Neil describes seeing the trains arrive at Broad Street on the way to work; he would “watch the open windows roll in, on their sills the elbows of tropical suits and the edges of briefcases, the properties of businessmen arriving in town from Maplewood, the Oranges and the suburbs beyond.” (page 10). From Broad Street Station, I walked to the Newark Public Library, which was supported in its early days by South Orange’s Louis Bamberger.
The “pale cement lions” (page 31) are gone, but it’s easy to imagine that Neil Klugman is in the library, and has simply stepped away from his desk, footsteps echoing on the marble floor. The building retains the flavor of another age, and I was content to walk west to where South Orange Avenue forks away from Springfield Avenue.
Neil describes nights growing cooler after he’d “driven out of Newark… It was, in fact, as if the hundred and eight feet that the suburbs rose in altitude… brought one closer to heaven.” The ascent is gradual; South Orange Avenue rises and falls slightly through Newark and into South Orange. It’s hard to see it with new eyes, but after traveling through industrial and residential areas, and passing two large cemeteries, the intersection of South Orange Avenue and Prospect Street offers a vision, a glimpse of leafy glades ahead, stretching all the way into the Reservation.
The Reservation Neil knew has changed. He describes feeding caged deer despite a sign that reads, “Do Not Feed the Deer, By Order of South Mountain Reservation.” He and Brenda stopped for lunch at “the rustic hamburger joints that dotted the Reservation.” (page 95) I simply pulled over to study the scenery and setting. The deer paddock is now the Dog Park.
“Goodbye Columbus” is about Neil, Brenda, and geography. It’s a story that relies on setting to show the gulf between the characters that even love fails to bridge. Neil considers the previous generation who left Newark, who “moved further and further west…and up the slope of the Orange Mountains, until they had reached the crest and started down the other side.” Our own community grew out of and then away from Newark. After I drove through the Reservation and into Short Hills, finding a neighborhood with “long lawns which seemed to be twirling water on themselves, and past houses where no one sat on stoops, where lights were on but no windows open,” (page 8) I was happy to turn around and come home to this particular slope of the mountain, South Orange.
All quotations are from the Vintage edition of "Goodbye Columbus and Five Short Stories" by Philip Roth, copyright 1959.