Saturday, May 5, 2012

"Good as Gold," by Joseph Heller

I read Joseph Heller's Good as Gold as part of the Birth Year Reading Challenge, where people read novels published the year they were born, and that's probably the only reason I finished it (or skimmed through it).

The beginning was interesting enough, with odd characters, none of whom I really liked, but who were interesting to watch.  A selfish and oblivious father who's constantly putting down his son, a brother who purposely makes false scientific statements just to annoy the main character, a Washington man who blatantly contradicts himself in absolutely everything he says (This should be very quick.  It will take a long time).  Many others.  Several have speech idiosyncrasies carried way beyond reality, in typical Heller style.  

My main problem, however, was that after the first unpleasant family dinner, and the first encounter with Washington runaround, and the first conversation with the gloomy, self-obsessed editor, and the first aggravating meeting with the rich and racist potential father-in-law, these four scenes just kept replaying themselves and replaying themselves with slight variations.  Seriously, how many family dinners can we really find ourselves interested in, when all they do is argue about the same things?

I also found myself lost a lot, when Heller got onto rants about politics in the 70s.  I wasn't around then, and he didn't give me enough context to make me care about something I know so little of.              

Lots of crude language, often sneaking up so you can't skip it, even if you wanted to.

Lots of Yiddish, which is great as long as there's enough context to understand and maybe learn a little.  Unfortunately, there wasn't.  For a spell in the middle, it felt like I was reading in another language.  I counted 21 italicized Yiddish words or phrases on ONE PAGE.  I could figure out the general gist of a few of the words.  A couple I already knew.  The rest was meaningless.   

Then ending was fairly good, and I enjoyed the first maybe 50 pages.  If it had been a short story, I probably would have really enjoyed the quirky characters and numbing frustrations of bureaucracy.  There were funny, clever bits here and there, like the way everyone thinks the main character is so brilliant for coining the phrase, "I don't know."  Suddenly everyone in Washington is using it—something no one's ever said there, apparently.  Great satire.

I suppose that after the success of Catch 22, no one had the guts to tell Heller he ought to trim his 450 pages by about 80%.  Or maybe he just didn't listen. 

Catch 22 was, in many ways, annoying and repetitive too, but it held my interest and captured the craziness of its world in a way Good as Gold fails to do.  If you want classic Heller, read his masterpiece. 

My rating:  2


  1. I'm sure we all share the feeling of having to sit through the same family dinner with the same arguments again and again, but literature should give you a clue as to the larger picture behind that, and it sounds like this one missed the mark. Maybe annoying and repetitive only works the first time an author gives it to us?

    Nice review and thanks for participating in the BYRC. As we sometimes say, "Well, at least you got a candle." :-)

  2. You're exactly right. Repetitive worked in Catch 22, and repetitive is realistic, but art isn't always a precisely accurate reflection of life. Sometimes you have to lie a little, or polish the dullness away, in order to get at the heart of the matter.