God Knows is Joseph Heller’s fourth novel—and his worst. Heller is outstanding among modern writers for the erratic quality of his work: after the classic Catch-22 (1961), he labored 13 years to produce the universally condemned Something Happened. In 1979, Heller bounced back with Good as Gold, a breakneck satire about a libidinous Jewish social climber. But with God Knows, Heller has bottomed out again, setting new standards for tedium, irritation and bad taste.
In God Knows, Heller introduces a novel form of fictional imperialism by rewriting the Old Testament history of David as if Israel’s second king were just another randy Brooklyn Jew with a knack for poetry and smiting Philistines. David is on his deathbed, trying to decide which of his two sons, Adonijah or Solomon, should succeed him. David has other problems too. He still lusts after Bathsheba, who refuses to sleep with him but daily promotes the ambitions of their son Solomon. David also expects an apology from God for killing their firstborn as punishment for David’s sins of adultery and murder. To pass the time, he narrates the revised Kind David version of his life in a pidgin tongue which combines the majestic cadences of the King James translation of the Old Testament with the equally familiar intonations of American Yiddish: “You think you’ve had trouble with inlaws?” David complains, referring to Saul’s attempts to murder him.
But Heller’s reduction of an ancient patriarchy to the hothouse confines of a stereotyped modern Jewish family quickly degenerates from the absurd to the trivial. After a dozen pages, the novelty of the language evaporates and Heller faces the overwhelming labor of improving on a story which, as David points out, is one of the best the Bible has to offer. True to the format of the Old Testament, he chronicles key incidents—the sparing of Saul’s life and his seduction of Bathsheba—several times. Such variants in the Bible are forgivable, but in God Knows, Heller’s inability each time to provide a fresh perspective grinds those events into tasteless, boring pulp. The novel contains only one comic inspiration—the notion that Solomon was not wise, but rather a witless pedant who cribbed David’s proverbs and actually intended to cut the baby in
half. But the central conflict between David and Bathsheba disintegrates under the weight of a male chauvinism so relentless that it makes the real ancient Judea look like a feminist paradise by comparison.
Unable to harness his linguistic conceit to any coherent theme, Heller gives his footloose imagination even freer rein by abolishing historical time. Like God, David speaks in the light of eternity, criticizing the foreskin on Michelangelo’s statue of him and identifying his maidservant’s culinary specialty as tacos. But because Heller is inconsistent —Bathsheba sometimes shares David’s omniscience, sometimes not—the device’s comic potential dissipates in gratuitous wisecracks. Completely unbuttoned humor, as God Knows shamelessly demonstrates, may produce the odd belly laugh, but the rest is flatulence.
God Knows should never have been published. Even gifted writers fail, but when they do, trusted editors usually advise them to revise. Because of his reputation, Heller can evidently publish at will, and to keep him in the stable, a publisher will knuckle under, publish —and be damned. Still, Heller’s novel may have some value if it prompts its victims to take down their Bibles, turn to the story of David and settle in for a
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