Friday, November 21, 2014

Book Review: Good as Gold

Book Review: Good as Gold
        
Author: Joseph Heller
        
Date: 1979
        
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
        
ISBN: none, but click here to find it on Amazon
        
Length: 408 pages
        
Quote: “Gold longed unreasonably for a blast of arctic air...to induce the abrupt departure for Florida of his father and stepmother.”
        
How good is Professor Bruce Gold? He’s not heroic. At forty-eight, he’s still as much embarrassed by his family as a fourteen-year-old. As a writer he’s not widely read. As a citizen he thinks he’d leave his home in New York, even his parents, wife, and children there, the minute he got a chance to move to Washington and take a better-paid government job. As a Jew he thinks he might write a book about being Jewish, but he’s not religious and thinks he wants to abandon his family, so how good could any book he'd write about his heritage be?
        
Gold’s old colleague, Ralph Newsome, a successful “unnamed inside source” who never says anything positively, can just about guarantee Gold the appointment. It might help if Gold were associated not with his loyal, thoroughly Brooklyn working class, wife Belle, but with young, attractive, horsey, academically brilliant, morally retarded, neurotic Andrea Conover, the daughter of a truly loathsome carpetbagger in suburban Virginia.
        
To his credit, Gold becomes disgusted by the Conovers before Belle finds out that he’s slept with Andrea. He even gets a miracle he can’t be said to deserve; although nobody’s ever counted how many men have already slept with Andrea, he doesn’t seem to have caught anything...well, in the 1970s most venereal diseases were treatable anyway.
        
To his discredit, Gold has no empathy for Andrea’s howling need for feminist consciousness-raising; he plans to exploit it to get rid of her after using her connections. He also puts up with Pops Conover’s ineluctable loathsomeness to the point of...let’s just say that Conover is a satire not based on the actual or legendary behavior of any real diplomat living or dead, but people who are prone to nausea should have naturally flavored ginger ale within reach while reading any scene in which he appears in the book.
        
Actually, even the scenes with Conover aren’t as nauseous as parts of Catch-22, but all stories about twentieth century warfare are nauseous, so readers of Catch-22 knew what to expect. Stories about diplomats aren't supposed to be gross-outs.
        
If the test of a “good” practice of any religion is compassion, as my late husband used to say, then Gold is not a good Jew. He has no compassion for Andrea, little for Newsome. He’s not what in 1979 was known as “warm and caring.” As the plot unfolds he does discover, deep in the basement of his consciousness, tiny amounts of compassion for his family, but nothing you could really call sympathy or affection. Gold is not the man any boy wants to grow up to be; he’s the kind of man male readers might fear becoming, or female readers might fear finding themselves married to.
        
If that’s how good or bad Gold is, how good or bad is Good as Gold? It has its comic moments; it’s not as hilarious as Catch-22. As a movie it might be rated PG-13; sex takes place outside of the context of pair-bonding, mostly offstage, and some characters have foul mouths...violence is mostly narrated in gross-out lines, especially Conover’s. Kids read worse in the daily newspapers but I’d still recommend this book only to adults, because a big part of its comedy is a long sardonic inside joke that’s never explained and may confuse young readers.
        
But I'll explain it: There were overtly Jewish diplomats in Washington in 1979. (I used to work for one of them; he'd been there since 1969 or before.) There were, in fact, overtly Jewish diplomats in Washington even in the nineteenth century, as there were in London, and in Richmond during the Civil War. In Washington, by the 1970s, they had a well entrenched social network and seemed to own the suburban town of Wheaton, Maryland. What is doubtful is whether there were working-class diplomats. 

In theory Americans detest elitism as much as we do the other forms of bigotry; in practice we’ve opened up and discussed and formally condemned the other forms of bigotry, but we’ve never confronted elitism and we’re still actively practicing it; we tend to feel that people without some experience handling large amounts of their own money can’t be trusted to handle public or corporate money. And Gold never understands this fundamental defining fact of his situation. Throughout the book, anyone who knew Washington in or close to this period would know that Gold’s being Jewish has nothing to do with his chance at a diplomatic post, that his thinking it has is evidence of his cluelessness, and that Newsome’s failure to give him a clue is proof of Newsome’s satanic function in the story...but Gold never guesses this, and for Heller, obviously, it all goes without saying.

Because Good as Gold is a real novel, not just a farce, Gold will grow and improve over the course of the book...but not much. Readers learn, although Gold doesn’t, that Gold has had mediocre success because he is a mediocre man. Readers will need some psychological astuteness, because this is never made explicit in the book either, to notice that Newsome plays the tempter to an old and true friend because his own bad choices have already made him a profoundly unhappy man and he’d like company in his misery. Ultimately Good as Gold has a solid moral, but Heller avoids belaboring the point...so well that the kind of reader who’s bothered by lots of foul language and frank talk about immoral behavior probably won’t notice the moral.

Heller no longer needs a dollar, and to sell this book online I'd have to charge $5 for the book + $5 shipping, so go ahead and buy it cheaper if you can.