Joseph Heller

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Heller, Joseph 1923–

Heller is an American novelist, playwright, and short story writer. He masterfully employs black humor and satire, effective for their recognizable groundings in contemporary culture. Since his best-selling Catch-22, Heller has suffered something of a creative lull, punctuated by a play and two novels. None of these subsequent works has received the critical acclaim given his early masterpiece. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

John Simon

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

No salute is due Joseph Heller's rather self-indulgent anti-war and anti-universal indifference play, We Bombed in New Haven, a belated foray into Pirandellism covering ideological and technical ground that is already flyspecked with footprints. Actually, the play has flunked out of every school it attended. At the Pirandello Academy it failed to master the basic precept that there can be no easy answers: here, when Sergeant Henderson unmistakably dies before our eyes and Captain Starkey sends his own son (however expressionistically depicted) to perish as the logical consequence of having sent all the other young men entrusted to him to their deaths, all the suggestive ambiguity evaporates and we are left with simple, tearful preachment. At the Absurdist Institute it did not learn the first lesson: to create figures that transcend reality (usually downward); here, at best, we have bitterly funny naturalistic types who fall on their fannies when the rug of reality is pulled out from under them. At the Brecht Cram School it never absorbed that racy deviousness that makes all characters tangily complex. At the Pinterian Mysteries, it was never initiated into the power of the unspoken. We Bombed in New Haven is a well-intentioned universal dropout. (p. 164)

John Simon, "'We Bombed in New Haven'" (1968–69), in his Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater, 1963–1973 (copyright © 1975 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1976, pp. 164-65.

Alfred Kazin

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[The essence of Catch-22 is that though it is ostensibly about the 1941–1945 war, in which Heller served, it is] really about The Next War, and thus about a war which will be without limits and without meaning, a war that will end only when no one is alive to fight it. The theme of Catch-22 … is the total craziness of war, the craziness of all those who submit to it, and the struggle to survive by one man, Yossarian, who knows the difference between his sanity and the insanity of the system. But how can one construct fictional meaning, narrative progression, out of a system in which virtually everyone but the hero assents to madness, willingly falls into the role of the madman-who-pretends-to-be-sane? The answer is that Catch-22 is about the hypothesis of a totally rejectable world, a difficult subject, perhaps impossible so long as the "world" is undifferentiated, confused with man's angry heart itself—but expressive of the political uselessness many Americans have felt about themselves since World War II. So Heller, who combines the virtuousness of a total pacifist with the mocking pseudo-rationality of traditional Jewish humor, has to fetch up one sight gag after another…. The book moves by Yossarian's asking sensible, human, logical questions about war to which the answers are madly inconsequent. Heller himself is the straight man on this lunatic stage, Yossarian the one human being in this farcically antihuman setup. The jokes are variations on the classic Yiddish story of the totally innocent recruit who pokes his head over the trench, discovers that everyone is firing away, and cries out in wonder—"One can get killed here!"

Yet the impressive emotion in Catch-22 is not "black humor," the "totally absurd," those current articles of liberal politics, but horror....

(This entire section contains 542 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Whenever the book veers back to its primal scene, a bombardier's evisceration in a plane being smashed by flak, a scene given us directly and piteously, we recognize what makesCatch-22 disturbing. The gags are a strained effort to articulate the imminence of anyone's death now by violence, and it is just this that makes it impossible to "describe war" in traditional literary ways. Despite the running gags, the telltale quality of Catch-22 is that it doesn't move, it can't. The buried-alive feeling of being caught in a plane under attack, of seeing one's partner eviscerated, produces the total impotence of being unable to move, to escape. And this horror-cold immobility is reproduced not in the static, self-conscious distortion of the gags but in the violence of the straight, "serious" passages. (pp. 82-4)

The urgent emotion in Heller's book is thus every individual's sense today of being directly in the line of fire, of being trapped, of war not as an affair of groups in which we may escape, but as my and your nemesis. The psychology in Catch-22 is that of a man being led to execution, of a gallows humor in which the rope around one's neck feels all too real (and is plainly stamped General Issue). (p. 85)

Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists and Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973.

Carol Pearson

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Catch-22 is a linguistic construct that requires people to do whatever their superiors wish. The novel is an examination of the destructive power of language when language is used for manipulation rather than communication. It is based on the existential premise that although the universe is irrational, people create rational systems. The linguistic expressions of these rational systems are cultural myths. People live by these myths whether or not they describe reality…. Catch-22, accordingly, points out the discrepancy between our myths and our realities and suggests that we would do better to stop creating rational systems and to start living in tune with an irrational universe. In doing so, it rejects abstract, rational language in favor of nonrational, metaphoric language.

To understand the causes and consequences of the debasement of American language, it is useful to see why Heller's characters accept myths as true which are in violent contradiction to their experience and to see who benefits from the acceptance of such myths. The characters in Catch-22 court comforting lies rather than [face] unpleasant truths. When Snowden's insides slither onto the floor, Yossarian realizes that "Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret."… (pp. 30-1)

But Yossarian can find no transcendental comfort to explain suffering and to make life meaningful. As Vance Ramsey explains, people react to meaninglessness by renouncing their humanity, becoming cogs in the machine.

With no logical explanation to make suffering and death meaningful and acceptable, people renounce their power to think and retreat to a simple-minded respect for law and accepted "truth." In Rome the M.P.'s exemplify the overly law-abiding person who obeys law with no regard for humanity. They arrest Yossarian who is AWOL, but ignore the murdered girl on the street. By acting with pure rationality, like computers programmed only to enforce army regulations, they have become mechanical men….

In the society which results when men fear thought so much that they merely accept what others tell them, the law becomes merely a facade covering humanity's basest instincts. Society becomes only an institution to perpetuate these instincts and to help the victims adapt to the order of Darwinian nature. The victims share responsibility with their tormentors for their debasement and suffering because they do not reject their tormentors or the system that perpetuates suffering. This conspiracy of suffering is demonstrated most effectively in the "Eternal City" episodes…. This picture of humankind preying upon one another with the blessings of every institution of society is consistently maintained in the novel. (p. 31)

That people should accept such a world depends upon their inability to question it and upon a fundamental despair which makes change seem impossible. People need insight and hope in order to revolt, but the desire to escape the horror of accepting responsibility in a meaningless and seemingly cruel universe has made them psychological cripples. In order to shelter its citizens from fear, society enfeebles language, for it is through language that we understand and share our understanding of reality. (pp. 31-2)

Ordinarily, people remain completely sheltered from terror, never questioning the assumptions of society…. A blanket of idealistic language so successfully shelters the characters that they are as unable to comprehend death or fear as they are to value human dignity or worth. Hence, language is made into an object of deception rather than of expression, examination, or communication, and the dominant occupation of men and of society becomes "protective rationalization."…

Most of the characters in the novel, however, acknowledge the power and authenticity of language as a closed nonreferential system. Language becomes so important that Wintergreen can effectively control generals and their men because he runs the mimeograph machine….

Language is powerful because it is equated with reality: Captain Black believes, for example, "The more loyalty oaths a person signed, the more loyal he was."… When experience conflicts with linguistic reality, the characters disregard experience….

In a world in which language is equated with reality, words, such as patriotism, duty, honor, courage, and loyalty, are employed to dupe them men into risking their lives for a tighter bomb pattern. The logical provisions of Catch-22 parody this use of language. In the most notable example of Catch-22, the men are forced to keep killing others and risking their own deaths by its provisions. (p. 32)

Other provisions of Catch-22 are equally absurd, contradictory, and mechanical, and each is a rationalization for brute power, which entraps and victimizes those without power. (p. 33)

However, Catch-22 only works when the victim believes in the power and authenticity of language and fears reality too much to question what he is told. Yossarian finally discovers that "Catch-22 did not exist … but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up."… Even though Catch-22 does not exist as a law, the characters of the novel believe it does. Language, therefore, does not describe their actions, it prescribes them.

By the end of the novel, Yossarian rejects abstract language because it invariably cloaks self-interest…. [But] even from the beginning of the novel, Yossarian is conscious that his experience clashes with the myths of his society. Therefore, his views seem insane to those around him…. The hospital psychiatrist declares Yossarian insane, but Yossarian concludes that his whole society is crazy, since "all over the world" "men went mad and were rewarded with medals."… (pp. 33-4)

Finally, the question of Yossarian's sanity reduces to the discrepancy between the world of abstract language epitomized by Catch-22 and the sensory world of the brothel. Nately's discussions with the old man in the brothel cogently reflect this disparity…. Although the old man's hedonistic morality is limited, Heller presents him as more "sane" than those who willingly die for Colonel Cathcart or for a tighter bomb pattern. To be crazy enough to refuse to die for a "principle" that is merely a rationale for another's gain, is moral. Dr. Stubbs summarizes the judgment of the novel when he responds to the news of Yossarian's refusal to fly by commenting: "That crazy bastard [Yossarian] may be the only sane one left."… To be insane is to be in tune with a universe that is fundamentally irrational and chaotic. (p. 34)

The positive irrationality of Dunbar, Orr and Nately's whore parallels the irrationality of many countercultural groups of the 1960's. For example, the YIPPIE's idea of political action was to run a pig for president. The popularity of Catch-22 in the sixties and seventies may partially result from Heller's rejection of the rationalist tradition. Critics who complain that the ending of Catch-22 is impossible and irrational—that Orr could not literally row to Sweden in a life raft, for example—miss this point. Catch-22 rejects reason and abstract, rationalist language as tools that an oppressive culture uses to deceive us. A discussion of Catch-22, therefore, while helping students identify the causes and consequences of the debasement of language in our culture, can also lead to thought-provoking debates on the future of rationality and language in our culture and on the possible consequences and dangers of asserting irrationality as a value. Since Heller uses language effectively to convince us of the failure of language, he causes us to re-examine the language of literature as a means of discovery and communication, suggesting that we should look to the artist rather than the politician to teach us about ourselves and our reality. (p. 35)

Carol Pearson, "'Catch-22' and the Debasement of Language," in The CEA Critic (copyright © 1974 by the College English Association, Inc.), November, 1974, pp. 30-5.

Mike Frank

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Heller makes it clear that the real enemy, the source of the true danger, is that principle which can allow Milo so glibly to overlook Nazi crimes against human life. And that principle, as the text makes abundantly clear, is an economic one. For Milo contract, and the entire economic structure and ethical system that it embodies and represents, is more sacred than human life. (pp. 77-8)

The most important manifestation of this thanatotic American morality, important because it extends the responsibility from particular individuals or groups to American society at large, is Milo's bombing of his own troops as part of a deal with the Germans…. In Heller's America war is merely another way of making money and getting ahead…. It is an America in which the Protestant ethic has run wild, so it is hardly surprising that Yossarian, who believes in the paramount importance of the individual human life, must rebel.

The enemy within then—the villain of the piece—is not any of the individual characters, all of whom are more foolish than evil, but the Protestant ethic itself with its disregard for human life and its deification of the profit motive. (p. 78)

Like the puritan ethic from which it derives, the American ethic Heller portrays conceives of life as a means to an end, and therefore as expendable. Corollary to that conception is a distrust of, even a disdain for, those aspects of human existence which are most pleasurable and generative of life. Foremost among these, for Heller's puritans of capitalism, is, of course, sex. Although the sacrifice of human life on the altar of free enterprise is the most dramatic example and image of thanatos in Catch-22, the pervasiveness and profundity of the thanatotic impulse is nowhere so evident as in the repeated denial of the life force, eros. Examples of this denial are abundant. A group of officers resort to sadism in their treatment of a prostitute because it is the only way they know of getting a reaction, for them the act of sex is meaningful only when destructive, and the infliction of pain becomes the means of human contact. Similarly Aarfy, whose fraternity manners enshrine one of our pervasive myths of noble virility, cannot avoid thinking of sex as dirty and reprehensible…. Implicit in Aarfy's value system is the absolute incompatibility of money and sex, an incompatibility very much in keeping with the puritan view of the matter. Since Aarfy's world—which Heller presents as very much like ours—takes wealth as its highest good it must necessarily reject any healthy sexuality. In view of this it is outrageous but not surprising that Aarfy later rapes a servant girl and then murders her, because, as he says, "I couldn't very well let her go around saying bad things about us, could I?" (pp. 78-9)

This pervasive unwillingness to accept sex, and the erotic impulse, as healthy has its effects even on those whose sexual impulse is less corrupt…. Unashamed of sex and yet convinced that men marry only virgins, [Luciana] is caught in the double bind of a ruthless puritanism.

As if to suggest that a moral standard based on the denial of love cannot sustain life in particular, Heller allows only one of his characters—the chaplain—a successful marriage; and the chaplain is one of the novel's two moral protagonists who reject the accepted norms and attempt to discover new ones. (p. 79)

[Critics] have objected to the novel's emphasis on sex…. But Yossarian's sexuality is much more than mere indulgence in superficial sensuality. The significance of Yossarian's sexual urges is made very clear when Heller tells us that, haunted by the ominous presence of death and unable to forget his dead friends, Yossarian "thirsted for life and reached out ravenously to grasp and hold Nurse Duckett's flesh."… For Heller, as for Yossarian, sex is an affirmation of life which, beyond its biologically reproductive function, works to unite people. In a society so given to separation and destruction healthy sexual communion becomes one of the few moral acts possible. (p. 80)

[When] a doctor tells him that to convince the authorities that his liver is infected—and thereby remain safely in the hospital—he will have to give up sex, Yossarian replies, "That's a hell of a price to pay just to keep alive."… His insistence on these sexual prerogatives parallels his ultimate refusal of the chance to return home offered by Cathcart and Korn. In either case he is given the opportunity to save his own life only by sacrificing one of the things that makes life worth saving. By rejecting both offers Yossarian shows that, some critics notwithstanding, he is not a coward intent on saving his own skin, but rather someone devoted to preserving the principle of life, the principle that Freud called eros.

It is fitting that in the world of Catch-22 the most eloquent spokesman for life should be the resident patron of a whore house. The old man who argues with the ingenuous Nately in the brothel has no use for ideologies, all of which he sees as excuses for the imposition of one's will on another. To Nately's argument that "anything worth living for is worth dying for," he responds, "Anything worth dying for … is certainly worth living for." Beneath the clever word play is the realization, central to Catch-22, that life itself is the one indispensable requirement for any set of values, and that to sacrifice life for those values is in effect to save something by destroying it. But beyond any ideological questions the old man is an expression of the way an indulgence in eros can eliminate the neurotic compulsion to win, a compulsion consistent with the puritan ethic's emphasis on success and deriving from the systematic repression of healthier impulses. In accepting those impulses the old man commits himself to life rather than to a factitious honor, is freed from the megalomania that afflicts almost all the book's American officers, and can feel comfortable with the realization that "we will certainly come out on top again if we succeed in being defeated."… (pp. 80-1)

Certainly it is noteworthy that the brothel presents us with the book's only scenes of interpersonal warmth. This house is very much a home, both for its residents who are insulated by it from the raging destruction outside, and for Yossarian and his friends who, in fact, seem to enjoy its warmth far more than its services. And indeed one soon notices that for all its overtly sexual references the novel is remarkably free of any salaciousness; but this ceases to surprise when one recognizes that in Catch-22 sex is not so much a specifically physical and genital activity as it is a recognition and embracing of libido in general, the protean creative and regenerative impulse. (p. 81)

While the puritan impulse is manifest in almost every character in the book it is, of course, clearest in the person of Milo Minderbinder, a virtual allegory of protestant capitalism…. Heller makes it clear that, even apart from whatever moral judgements we as readers may wish to make of such unscrupulously self-serving behavior, the puritan ethic has a dark underside. Milo's very name, Minderbinder, suggests the limitations imposed by the principles he chooses to follow: the profit motive binds the mind and thus deprives Milo of a fundamental moral freedom, the freedom to choose, since his options are severely limited by his ethic…. In this he is the exact opposite of Orr who, if not the book's moral protagonist, is certainly its morally paradigmatic figure. As his name indicates Orr embodies the principle of alternatives and thus freedom and choice. Orr is the only character in the work who succeeds in escaping from the thanatotic system. All the rest, except for Yossarian, lack the freedom to choose and are caught, perhaps permanently, on that little thanatotic puritan island.

There is something very—although, no doubt, inadvertently—fitting about the choice of an island to epitomize one of the dominant characteristics of American civilization; for another fiction set on an island provides the myth on which Catch-22 plays variations. The myth is that of Robinson Crusoe who, in his drive for individual achievement and personal salvation, is prepared to relinquish all claim to human contact. (pp. 81-2)

Catch-22 may be considered a bildungsroman to the extent that it chronicles Yossarian's growing awareness of the thanatotic nature of the system in which he is caught, as well as his consequent decision to react against it in the interest of eros. (p. 85)

[Finally] Yossarian leaves Pianosa on an odyssey that, he hopes, will eventually lead to Sweden. The Sweden he aims for is located, perhaps, not so much in the real world as in the geography of the moral imagination. It is, nevertheless, a country noted for its freedom from war—thanatos—and its liberalism in sexual matters—eros. (p. 86)

Mike Frank, "Eros and Thanatos in 'Catch 22'," in Canadian Review of American Studies, Spring, 1976, pp. 77-87.

Richard Locke

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

"Catch-22" is probably the finest novel published since World War II. "Catch-22" is the great representative document of our era, linking high and low culture, with its extraordinary double-helix form, its all-American G.I.-comedy characters, its echoes of Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, Miller and Céline. Its only rival is Pynchon's gargantuan "Gravity's Rainbow"—much larger, more learned and intelligent, but top-heavy, and a colder, deadly work of art. (I should add that if "Catch-22" recalls Dickens in its comic fertility and complex form, then Heller's second novel, "Something Happened," seems an impressive if tortuous attempt to rewrite Henry James—to provide a counterpart to "The Portrait of a Lady," to chart the postwar civilian hell of narcissism.) (p. 37)

Richard Locke, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 15, 1977.

Eliot Fremont-Smith

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[Good as Gold] is being touted by its publisher as doing for the White House what Catch-22 did for the military of World War II—that is, a demolition job on our more positive illusions. The method is certainly the same: Every cliched absurdity is played straight and at length; a lot of little jokes illumine the big joke, which is that everything is a bad joke. But the timing is off….

This inevitably blunts the effect of Heller's tardy absurdities and makes the bad joke seem merely old. To be shocking today, Good as Gold would have to accomplish the opposite of what it intends: It would have to offend our current cynicism by revealing the deep integrity, selfless dedication, and nobility of democratic spirit that guide our government. It might not sell, but it would be new.

Not that Good as Gold is without offensiveness. It does bore. It is also anti-Semitic. If Heller believes (and I'm willing to think he thinks he does) that everything is base and mean and rotten to the core, this goes double for the Jews….

The protagonist is Brooklyn-born, Columbia-graduated Bruce Gold. Now 48, Gold teaches college English … and writes reviews and articles for unread intellectual journals….

Gold is a schlub, a manipulator, a self-conscious hypocrite. His failing is in not making enough money. It's vaguely for this, and his general dullness—not his dishonesty—that his family despises him. His family consists of a nasty, senile father, an older brother, four older sisters, and their various spouses, each of whom is more self-centered and envious and unpleasant than the next—the Snopeses of Coney Island. Their reunions take up many pages and move the plot along about an inch. The lust for money moves it more….

The Jews in Good as Gold are uniformly portrayed as snivelling, deceitful, self-aggrandizing, and ambitious beyond their worth…. (p. 74)

Ah, one says correctly, but the Wasps are just as bad. I had several dialogues with myself during the course of Good as Gold. For example: Yes, but to a Wasp anti-Waspism is a tiresome irritant only, while to a Jew anti-Semitism has to be something different. And technical stuff: Heller allows no empathy, no identification with Gold, and therefore no possibility of tension in the reader's mind—and that's where he goes wrong (in contrast to his second novel, and the one that moved me most, Something Happened). If all is hokey-jokey and intended to be distasteful, it's going to be distasteful. Especially because it seems a political polemic but has no discernible point other than everything is shit. Questions to myself: Must a work of imagination have a point? Isn't the point that everything is shit okay? Answers: Yes, it must; and No, not interesting enough. Side remark: Am I getting old?

And more to the heart of it, the embarrassments: For when I say I'm bored with Good as Gold, that's true, but not entirely true. I am suspicious that boredom is a cover for being offended—a sophisticate's way of dealing with something he would like to call "in bad taste" except that the phrase has such a dumb ring. And except that the "bad taste" has to do with anti-Semitism. (pp. 74-5)

Also this: it is conceivable that Heller is somehow saying that we are all one, that neither Jews nor gentiles have a corner on viciousness. If so, a sentimental and denigrating corollary is apparent—that the former learned from the latter's example….

But if Heller can be said to breathe conviction into any character, it's Conover. His rhetoric—"kike" and the rest—carries more force of sneering feeling than anything else in the book. And not even this is power-packed. It's nostalgic, as if Heller missed rougher, more explicitly dangerous times. Good as Gold doesn't deal with evil, it merely gets off on it. (p. 75)

Eliot Fremont-Smith, "Kvetch-22," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice: copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1979), March 5, 1979, pp. 74-5.

Leonard Michaels

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In his diary Kafka asks, "What have I in common with Jews?" Immediately he answers, "I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe." Thus, failure to identify with his people inspires a joke about failure to identify with himself. The same failure, and the same joke extremely elaborated, describes much of Joseph Heller's third novel, "Good as Gold."

As the title boasts, "Good as Gold" is a dazzling commodity. It is in fact another big book about Jews—literally about a Jewish professor, Bruce Gold, who has an idea for a book about the Jewish experience in America. He sells the idea to friends of his in publishing, two sleazy, conniving opportunists…. Both see the Jewish book as potentially lucrative, but while Lieberman wants it to be sensational, containing such things as what it feels like for a Jewish man to have sexual intercourse with "gentile girls," Pomoroy wants Gold to write a book "useful to colleges and libraries." In any case, Gold's idea for the Jewish book, which occupies him through the first chapter, is never realized because he does too many other things….

Though Gold never writes his book, we finally have the book he lives, "Good as Gold." It is indeed about Jews and a lot more, and it satisfies the requests of vulgar Lieberman and grimly serious Pomoroy, for it is both high and low in comic spirit. It contains much truth as well as gross, slapstick lunacy.

While the title speaks ironically about Bruce Gold's intention to make money on the Jewish experience, it also mocks him with paradox, suggesting in his very name problems of identity and value. How good is Gold? Is Gold good? (As for Bruce, a Gaelic name, what is a Jew doing with it?) Beyond all this doubleness, the novel has a double plot that reflects its deepest subject, alienation—being what you are not, feeling what you don't feel, thinking what you don't think, living a life that is not yours. Essentially, then, "Good as Gold" is about some American Jews, their bastardized existence, their sense of congenital inauthenticity. Kafka's agonies of personal identity are brought up to date by Heller and remade American—bold and commercial.

Virtually everything about his hero is ambivalent or inconsistent. (p. 1)

Most important to the description of Gold is his oppressive family. Much of the time in the novel is spent with them, mainly at the dinner table in scenes that are delightfully theatrical and funny; they probably could be staged with little change. The family characters tend to be hilariously obnoxious…. (pp. 1, 24)

Along with Lieberman, Pomoroy and other amusing, revolting Jewish friends from his youth in Coney Island, the family determines one plot of the novel that is exquisitely realistic—that is, grotesque, witty, lugubriously banal. Its Jewish characters are comically limited, but they suffer, they have pasts, they have interior lives, and they constitute the roots, trunk and branches of Gold's inescapable, basic identity….

The Protestant characters in the novel, in contrast to the Jews, are essentially unproblematic and mechanical. They determine most of the other plot, which is mainly fantastic but includes an astounding vision of our leaders in Washington. Astounding because, while fantastic, it doesn't seem incorrect….

In contrast to Gold's ambivalent character, there is at least one figure in the novel who is absolutely who he is, a man of ultimate authenticity: Hugh Biddle Conover, an old dying Protestant of infinite wealth, father of the woman Gold wants to marry. Father and daughter, Gold imagines, can be instrumental in getting him a job in Washington, in the President's inner circle. The realistic-Jewish-plot and the fantastic-Protestant-plot, as separate from each other as Gold is from himself, come together with concentrated ferocity when Gold visits Conover's immense estate … to ask for the hand of his immensely tall blonde daughter….

Conover's speeches are too flatly punishing to be terribly funny. Long, detailed, precise, full of venomous hatred, they are not only impossible in reality, but the hatred seems finally to exceed the comic situation. This happens again in an extended comment Gold makes on the career of Henry Kissinger. In both cases the satirical animus is focused on loathsome qualities of Jews, but the book is essentially about Jews, especially those like Gold, who wants to escape his identity while exploiting it, particularly by making a lot of money on a big book about Jews. Heller himself is implicated, but only insofar as "Good as Gold" is about such books and the people who write them. He exploits the exploiters. He has his cake and eats it, too. Indeed, the novel self-consciously comments on itself in the title and in other places, and thus seems literally to feed on itself….

Father and daughter, comic Protestants of Gold's imagination, play the same role Jews once played in the Protestant imagination. The reversal is much apparent in contemporary movies and novels, but Jewish artists can be trusted to balance attacks on Protestants with lots of anti-Semitism. For these satirists the truth of our American life lies between ugly and funny. In Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and others, a powerful satirical convention has been established, and it is just what Heller says, ironically: good as gold. His novel comments on itself constantly, and the merciless denunciation of his scapegoat hero is the price Heller pays for his artistic conscience. (p. 24)

[The] self-conscious complexities of the novel make it inconsistently funny and sometimes tiresome.

However Protestants are conceived and treated, it is one of the themes of "Good as Gold" that Jews violate themselves in their relations with such unreal creatures of their own minds, especially when Jews yearn for tall blondes and jobs in Washington, where successful Jews are "slaves." The chief example, for Gold, is Kissinger….

According to Gold's father, it is possible Kissinger isn't a Jew. This is relevant to the novel's paradoxical, ironical character, because it gives the final twist to the relations between Bruce Gold, an imaginary hero, and the real living Kissinger, a non-Jewish Jew married in fact to a tall blonde. In brief: Bruce Gold yearns to escape what he is so that he can become what he isn't, which is precisely what he hates….

The way Heller plays with this psycho-physical transmogrification of his hero is remarkably impressive, and I suspect that Bruce Gold is a uniquely original hero. Has there ever been one who is the self-despising alter ego of a world-famous person? A hero who exists, in his very essence, relatively? At the core of its satirical vision, "Good as Gold" seems to have combined Einstein's theory of relativity with Kafka's agonies. (p. 25)

Leonard Michaels, "Bruce Gold's American Experience," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 11, 1979, pp. 1, 24-5.


Heller, Joseph (Vol. 1)


Heller, Joseph (Vol. 3)