Books

Better than gold

GOOD AS GOLD by Joseph Heller

Barbara Amiel April 16 1979
Books

Better than gold

GOOD AS GOLD by Joseph Heller

Barbara Amiel April 16 1979

Better than gold

Books

GOOD AS GOLD by Joseph Heller

(Musson, $17.50)

Welcome to Heller-land and a conversation between Bruce Gold-48, shortish, Jewish and married—and his secret fiancée, Andrea Biddle Conover, tall, blonde, rich and imposingly Gentile:

“Andrea, I have to ask you this and I don’t think I know how. But didn’t you used to be taller?”

“Taller than what?”

“Taller than you are now, I guess. Ralph saw you at a party and he seems to feel you’re getting shorter.”

“Than what?”

“Than you used to be, I imagine.”

“I haven’t noticed if I am. Maybe I only look shorter because you’re getting larger.”

“I wasn’t there.”

“Would it make much difference if I were?”

“Not to me ... Although Ralph seems to be concerned. But if you’re getting shorter, don’t you think we ought to

know about it before the marriage and try to do something? After all,” said Gold feeling rather expansive, “you wouldn’t want to get too short, would you?”

Gold certainly wouldn’t want her to get shorter: he has a short Jewish wife already. Heller’s third novel is his most consistently funny, readable and closeto-the-bone work. Good As Gold is not a “Jewish novel” in spite of a liberal sprinkling of such expressions as “the vontz was nisht aheyn, nisht aher”—one of the more generous reflections on Henry Kissinger, I think, though I’m not quite sure what it means myself. Heller’s most universal story is rooted in the Brooklyn background of Bruce Gold simply as a reflection of Heller’s wisdom in choosing an ambience he knows well.

Gold is a rootless intellectual, teaching English at a New York City college, writing a little, and full of the pain of times past, chances missed and too many family dinners. His wife Belle is passive and familiar; his children are active and unpleasant. Gold worries about being a Semite in a world still dominated by lean Yankees and suffers from sour-celebrititis due to heavy

reading of the social pages of better newspapers. A book review he writes results in a call from old college-mate Ralph, now a presidential assistant or a “source” or maybe just a “spokesman.” Gold is offered a job: anything from secretary of state to head of NATO. All he has to do is to follow Ralph’s instructions: “Do whatever you want as long as you do whatever we want. We have no ideas and they’re pretty firm.”

Heller’s book hits many targets: the bureaucracy, the Jewish family, the sex-and-restaurant pursuit of government and so on. On a far more significant plane it draws a brilliant portrait of a member of our newest class—the General Intellectual. The product perhaps of universal education, the complexity of modern society or too much fluoride in the water, these are not intellectuals in the traditional sense. Neither scholars, nor artists, nor philosophers, nor priests, they have no sense of calling or discipline. They are amorphous individuals who publish a little, ache for power, long to be tastemakers and—ultimately—government advisers.

Heller’s writing, as his critics have been quick to point out, does suffer from repetitiveness. Good As Gold is no exception. And while it is both funny and true, it contains few ideas that haven’t surfaced recently at any decent literary party. But Heller stamps them ineradicably on the public consciousness. God help the Washington spokesman who ever dares to use the word “boggle” or the phrase “I don’t know” after this book. And if Heller’s satire misses sometimes, as it does, it is not because of squeamishness or caution. It is the injudiciousness of true talent, which is better than gold. It’s pure Heller.

Barbara Amiel