Bruce Gold is a frustrated middle-aged academic who feels unappreciated by the world at large – with an ageing father who constantly bullies him, siblings he struggles to connect with, a marriage long past its honeymoon years, children who neither like nor respect him, a public that doesn’t recognise his authorial genius, and surrounded by peers Gold deems far less capable than himself – but who’ve managed to achieved far greater success. Such is the unpleasant, but very human, protagonist of Joseph Heller’s third novel, Good As Gold.
Gold has big plans to write one book about the Jewish experience and another on Henry Kissinger, but he finds neither plan easily realised – he doesn’t actually know what the Jewish experience is, and he never gets further with Kissinger than big ideas and a big collection of newspaper clippings. The (fairly pompous) articles he does publish never gain the attention or respect he desires – but instead attracts derision from his teenage daughter, criticism from his peers, mixed deference/apprehension by his family, his sarcasm and seriousness misunderstood in equal measure – until the day a call comes through from the White House. The President has read Gold’s work, was deeply impressed, so how would Gold feel about a cushy Washington position?
Good As Gold is a mix of political satire, class commentary, complex family drama, all laced with a heavy dose of middle-aged anxiety, and while it’s written with Heller’s inimitable touch… I didn’t love it. I really, truly wanted to. His first novel, Catch-22, has been an unwavering favourite of mine for the last decade; I loved his second novel, Something Happened, even though it left me seriously depressed for weeks. I’ve certainly read less enjoyable books than Good As Gold, but I’m so disappointed with how cold this left me. It’s far more era-dependent and dated than his other novels, and I was frustrated by how much I knew I was missing because I’m not overly familiar with the general state of 1970s US politics or the details of Henry Kissinger’s political and post-political career. Not being Jewish myself, I likewise felt I was missing a lot of the specifically Jewish commentary/jokes. That’s not to say it was all bad – it’s not as tight as Catch-22, but hilariously irrational double-talk and nonsensical situations still abound.
“What are you making?” he’d asked her one time out of curiosity that could no longer be borne in silence.
“You’ll see,” she replied mysteriously.
He consulted his father. “Pa, what’s she making?”
“Mind your own business.”
“Rose, what’s she knitting?” he asked his sister.
“Wool,” Belle answered.
“Belle, I know that. But what’s she doing with it?”
“Knitting,” said Esther.
Gold’s stepmother was knitting knitting, and she was knitting it endlessly. (p. 26)
One of Heller’s strengths is familial pathos, which I’ve always felt is a bit under-appreciated. A lot of the family drama in Good As Gold is absurd verging on frustrating, but that only serves to make the serious moments, Gold’s realisation of his family as fellow humans instead of two-dimensional roadblocks to his personal success, so much more poignant.
“Didn’t you mind having to take care of me?” Gold asked softly. “…Sid, it’s okay to say yes. People in a family often dislike each other for much less than that.”
“No, I didn’t mind.” Sid spoke with his face partially averted from Gold’s fascinated gaze…. “Pop was crazy about you when you were small. We were the ones he was mean to. we were the ones who couldn’t stand you.”
“Then you did dislike me.” Gold pursued the point doggedly. “You just admitted you couldn’t stand me.”
“Oh, no,” said Sid softly. “I never disliked you. I was always very proud of you.”
Pity cast a shadow of restraint over Gold, and he ceased trying to untangle the hazy conflicts in Sid’s repeated aversions. He felt fifteen years distant from his older brother, and a thousand years wise. And perhaps, for the moment, equally repressed. There was more to Sid indeed, very much more, but whatever lay secret in him would remain occluded forever beneath the shield of denials Gold would not again make the effort to penetrate. (p. 311-313)
While Catch-22 skips along frantically and quite joyfully, Good As Gold is more densely plodding. If books were drinks, Catch-22 would be shots at the bar with your best friends; Good as Gold a pint of guinness after a big meal.
I’m ambivalent on how to rate this one. It’s not terrible – I wish I’d ~gotten~ more of the jokes, and I’ll probably read it again one day down the line. Read it if you’re committed to Heller. Read it if you know lots about 1970s political machinations. Read it if you don’t really have anything else on your to-read list. I don’t regret reading it, but my frank recommendation would be that you read Catch-22 instead, then read it again.