Though Millicent Dillon has published two previous novels and a collection of short stories, she is best known as a biographer, especially of the novelists Paul and Jane Bowles. In Harry Gold, she combines fiction and biography (mostly the first), attempting to show Gold’s interior life by extrapolation from what is known about him—that he was a chemist and an unassuming spy, and that he never married. This novel, in short, is a character study based on educated guesswork.
The features of Gold’s personality that emerge in this treatment of his life are loyalty, an urge to please and care for people, and an unswerving ordinariness. These qualities are most tellingly evident in Gold’s relationship with Klaus Fuchs, the German émigré and communist who began his own life as a spy in London in 1941. As a physicist on the atom bomb project, he passed secrets to the Russians in World War II, especially through Harry Gold.
This relationship is the center of the novel, beginning as a flashback and becoming most intensely detailed in the middle, when Gold travels to New Mexico as a courier between Fuchs and the Russians. Using Fuchs’s as well as Gold’s point of view, the story shows in what ways these characters are similar and in what ways they are different.
Gold disgusts Fuchs; he is Jewish, he reminds him of a mole, he is subservient, he intrudes on Fuchs’s privacy by worrying about him, and he has hope that all will be well with the downtrodden of the world. Fuchs, on the other hand, feels superior to others by virtue of his intelligence. He clings to the abstract ideal of Marxism rather than embracing the concrete desperation of specific people. Indeed, the clarity and power of the mind are more important to him than the insoluble disorder of feeling.
Still, Gold and Fuchs share the secrecy of spies, and neither one will take money for this work. They also share a need to keep their true selves hidden from others. Gold’s code name is Raymond, and he tells those he is sent to as a courier that he is married to a red-haired woman named Louisa and that they have twins, Dan and Doris. He does not reveal that he lives alone, that he is (or at least seems to be) a virgin, or that his caring for and worrying about the people he knows is his way of keeping them at bay.
Fuchs may use disdain to protect himself from others, but he is as concerned about his sister Lottie and as pained by the memory of his family as Gold is committed to the welfare of his own family. Fuchs is also troubled by the wholesale death that the project he is working on at Los Alamos will cause, which in fact it does cause when the atom bomb is dropped on Japan. Whereas deprivation and worry are assumptions in Gold’s makeup, Fuchs’s anguish affects him physically because he cannot or will not express it. As Fuchs assures himself after a meeting with Gold in New York, “any telling is a betrayal of oneself.”
Moreover, Fuchs, like Gold, has no sex life, despite the overtures that women in Los Alamos make to him. As for Gold, there are several examples of the trouble he has with women. When Rosa Gallo, his friend Dave White’s girlfriend and an exponent of free love, kisses him, it is not only the first time a woman other than his mother does so; it arouses him so intensely that it frightens him. When, not long before he is caught as a spy, he becomes intimate enough with Joan, a lab technician where he works, to go to bed with her, he cannot go through with making love to her. So Gold and Fuchs are both sexually isolated (to accentuate this in Gold’s case, he is now and then shown masturbating repeatedly). In the end, Fuchs and Gold share loyalty, for neither one betrays the other when the authorities catch up to them—Fuchs in London and Gold in New York, then in Philadelphia.
The novel suggests that the mothers of the two men are the source of their views of the human world. Fuchs’s despair is based on his mother killing herself, and Gold’s caring and hope are based on his mother Cecilia insisting one must never give up hope for survival, and on her looking after her family no matter what.
Harry Gold cannot avoid acting like his mother. His first concern seems to be for what others want, as readers see when, after Fuchs fails to show up for a meeting in Boston, he helps a worn-out drunk he finds in the middle of a country road. This urge to please is how he comes to be a spy in the first place. Having lost a lab job during the Depression, he goes to visit Dave White, a job contact in Jersey City. White not only helps him get the job that he himself quit in a local lab; he also, along with his girlfriend Rosa, introduces Gold to Marxist ideology.
Gold is not drawn to any doctrine, nor to Judaism apart from the ethics of the Law, so he does not join the Communist Party as Dave and Rosa have. However, when they focus on the injustice of capitalism in its treatment of people “as a commodity that can be discarded,” and on the Soviet Union as the only hope for social change for the better, and on that country’s need for industrial chemical processes to help it survive, especially in the face of Hitler, Gold agrees to “share,” not steal, the processes he has access to (such as Buna-S, a method for making synthetic rubber) with Amtorg, the Soviet trade mission in the United States. His real reason for doing this is that Dave White has become his friend and wants him to.
Gold’s ordinariness, as well as his thoroughness (an aspect of his work as a chemist), serve him well as a courier for the Soviets. On his assignments to cities such as Buffalo, Syracuse, and Boston, nothing about him stands out. His hat, his raincoat, shoes, and bag are black, and if this makes him stand out when he goes to New Mexico to receive information about the atom bomb from Klaus Fuchs, and at one point from David...
(The entire section is 2394 words.)