In 1960, Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus won the National Book Award. The title story of the collection is a novella that tells of the doomed romance between Neil Klugman, a recent college graduate who works in a library and lives in a working class neighborhood in Newark, and Brenda Patimkin, a Radcliff student from an affluent family. The differences in class, family pressures and the two young lovers slowly forming adult identities cause the relationship to fall apart. It was one of the first books that formed what I call “The Twenty-Something Genre.”
Seven years later, Mike Nichols turned Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate into a blockbuster movie starring a very young Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock, a young college graduate who is seduced and corrupted by the wife of his father’s law partner, the infamous Mrs. Robinson, played deliciously by Anne Bancroft. The film captures 1960’s affluent society’s shallowness, best summed up in this memorable exchange:
Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Just how do you mean that, sir?
What one word might a contemporary Mr. McGuire whisper to Benjamin? “Derivatives”?
In the end, Ben finds redemption in the love of Elaine, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter and in the final scene we see them escaping on a city bus. They may be free, but their future is still uncertain as revealed by the uncomfortable expressions on their faces. As much as we want them to, I can’t actually picture them staying together.
Novelist Eugene Mirabelli, my college writing teacher, published a novel in 1959, the same year as Roth’s first book, called The Burning Air, which told the story of George and Giula. The book is an account of a hot summer weekend after college when the young couple must confront their future. Complicating matters are the pressures brought to bear by Giulia’s family. Again, the couple are doomed, and George is left with only a wistful memory.
In Ian McEwan’s 2007 novel On Chesil Beach, the young couple, Edward and Florence, are actually married, but nevertheless still doomed. McEwan sets his story in pre-sexual revolution days of July, 1962. Edward and Florence are trying to escape the stultifying values of their parents, and to break free of the class distinctions that separate them, but their own insecurities and uniquely sheltered backgrounds lead to a disastrous wedding night. Again, a young man is left to wonder about what might have been had he been able to discover his adult self just a little bit sooner.
Back when I was a twenty-something, I attempted to write a story of this type called “A Couple.” I have to admit that I was very much “influenced” by both Goodbye, Columbus and The Burning Air. The doomed lovers in my story are on their final spring break in college, with graduation and their adult lives steadfastly approaching. Of course, like Roth and Mirabelli before me, I attempted to blame everything on her family. I could never really figure out the ending or what the story meant, so I put the first draft manuscript in a box, put the box in a basement, and forgot about it for twenty years.
When I started writing again, my wife found the box in the basement and I rediscovered the story. I read it again, and although I felt embarrassed by some of the writing, but I found something compelling about it. I remembered writing on my old smith-corona in the apartment my wife and I lived in when we were first married. It was the last thing I wrote before getting caught up in career pursuits and starting a family caused me to stop writing.
The story still didn’t have a proper ending, but I started typing it into my computer, cleaning up the embarrassingly bad parts and crappy dialogue. I reworked the story over and over again, trying about seven or eight different endings. Finally, when I got tired of working on it, I started sending it out. Fifty rejections and several more rewrites later, it was accepted by two journals on the same day.
It’s hard to know what made the difference between rejection and acceptance, but I believe it was the final small revision I made. I had been in a workshop with Elizabeth Benedict the previous summer and I remembered her speaking about dialogue in fiction. “Dialogue in fiction is not like conversation, where people avoid the truth at all costs and don’t reveal what they really think. That doesn’t work in fiction. Take a chance, have your character say something they never would in real-life, and see what happens.”
I found the place in my story where I needed to do that and I think it made all the difference. It also revealed that the breakup was not only her fault, it was also his.
“A Couple” was originally published in Cantaraville Two and is now included in my first short story collection, Indian Summer And Other Stories
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