Thursday, December 10, 2009

the last book I read

Good As Gold by Joseph Heller.

I alluded in my post about The Unbearable Lightness Of Being to there being a small number of books on my shelves that I'd started but never finished for some reason, TULOB being one of them. I listed a couple of others, but missed one - this one. I must have started it shortly after I bought it, probably 18-20 years ago, but never got further than about page 80, for reasons that I can't remember. As with probably 99% of people that buy this book I did so on the back of having read the legendary Catch-22. Heller wasn't exactly a prolific novelist: Catch-22 was published in 1961, its much darker successor Something Happened in 1974, and this, Heller's third novel, in 1979.

So: Bruce Gold is a university lecturer and occasional writer of articles for magazines which have earned him a modest reputation as a political commentator. This reputation cuts little ice with his extended Jewish family, though, who come together for several extended dinner gatherings throughout the novel. Gold's father constantly belittles his intellectual pretensions, elder brother Sid delights in goading him into arguments, and his stepmother seems to be insane.

Gold is trying to negotiate a publishing deal for a book about "the Jewish experience", though he seems unsure as to what "the Jewish experience" is. Meanwhile his old schoolfriend Ralph Newsome, who is now some ill-defined White House "advisor", has picked up on some earlier writings and offers Gold the opportunity of an equally ill-defined government post. Gold relocates to Washington, sets himself up with a mistress, starts researching another book (this time on Henry Kissinger) and waits for his exact rĂ´le to be decided. Unfortunately things aren't quite that simple - Ralph seems unwilling to be tied down on exactly what the job is, his mistress's father (who he is depending on for some political patronage) seems to be an insane wheelchair-bound anti-Semite, and his every move is being spied on by CIA spooks. Gold also hasn't quite got round to leaving his wife, Belle, as he's intimidated by his teenage daughter Dina, and reluctant to have to start doing his own laundry.

There are two stories interwoven here - the classic Jewish family saga with the tragi-comic characters who love each other and hate each other at the same time as portrayed in classic American Jewish novels like Portnoy's Complaint and Herzog, which has a bit of emotional depth and impact to it, and the much broader political satire - farce, almost - of the Washington-set bits, which doesn't. I'm not sure that the two strands knit together totally convincingly; in addition there is the usual problem of black satirical comedy, which is making you care enough about the central characters to bother finding out what happens to them. This is easy in the family segments where Gold's awkwardness at being the socially awkward intellectual among a family of shallow gregarious types is nicely done, less so when Gold is bed-hopping or digging up dirt on Kissinger in Washington.

Heller would no doubt have raged against being stereotyped as someone who'd peaked with his very first novel, but it's nonetheless true: this one is fine, but Catch-22 is the book you want.

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