Commentary

Talking with Joseph Heller

By Charlie Reilly
This article appeared in Inquiry on May 1, 1979.

Q: My congratulations on Good as Gold, It’s a remarkable book. In fact, I think it has that harmony between humor and subtle profundity that you handle as well as anyone writing today.

HELLER: I’m glad you like it. I’m pleased you enjoyed the humor too because I was just reading a very perceptive review by a professor names John Aldridge who called Good as Gold the bleakest of my three books. I think he used the phrase, “an extension of Heller’s darkening vision.” The more I thought about it the more I could see what he meant.

Q: You’re kidding? Bleaker than Something Happened?

HELLER: Bleaker than Something Happened and Catch-22 — the bleakest and most biting despite the, I think he used the word, hilarity. He focused largely upon the Washington episodes and speculated that what Heller is imagining today may well be happening tomorrow. He also commented upon what I have in there, perhaps unconsciously, about the decline of the contemporary family.

Q: I’m sure INQUIRY is hoping for your thoughts about the novel, period. As I collect myself now, I realize that I meant to say the pace and tone of the novel reminded me of what was best about Catch-22. There were at least a dozen portions where I put down the book and laughed out loud — and how often does that happen in a book? But as I came to the final passages, as the protagonist’s life becomes so frantic, I got the same eerie felling I did with both of your other novels. I found what I had dismissed as “fun” sneaking up on me, and I found myself being absorbed with, well, the moral undercurrents of the book.

HELLER: I should stress I was very conscious of the similarities between Good as Gold and Catch-22, and I was vigilant not to repeat the same comic techniques too often — techniques like sudden shifts in time and place. In the final sections I make extravagant use of such techniques, but that was the result of a conscious decision. I wanted those seven days when they’re sitting shivah to move quickly. But, on the whole I tried hard to avoid the types of aphoristic and verbal humor that I used in Catch-22.

Q: Although Catch-22 was set during World War II, you directed a lot of its satire against the then-current excesses and evils of McCarthyism. I wonder if there isn’t something complementary in Good as Gold. This novel supposedly concerns the “Jewish Experience,” but at the same time it intensely, ferociously, comments on Kissinger, Vietnam, and post-Vietnam politics.

HELLER: The answer to your question is yes. There’s a review I’ve seen that closes with the thought that Gold is Jewish only in his symptoms. The implication, and it’s sensible, is that he’s representative of the entire country at this time. Good as Gold does focus upon the Jewish experience, but ultimately Bruce Gold finds his experience is not particularly more Jewish than, well, mine. I feel that many people my age, people who went to college after the war and became involved in academic or literary activities, have had experiences that are not materially different from those of people who aren’t Jewish.

Q: A couple of people asked me after our first interview whether you’re Jewish and I had to say I didn’t know because it never occurred to me to ask you. You haven’t written about Jewish protagonists or themes before, in other words. But are you from a Jewish family, similar to Gold’s?

HELLER: Well, yes, I’m Jewish. But, no, I didn’t have a large family like Gold, nor did I become involved in dinners similar to the Gold family’s. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure where the idea came from for those dinners in the novel. My wife has a large family and, of course, we all gathered for Thanksgiving and whatever. But there was nothing like the, well, uproar and anger you find in Gold’s dinners. What I was trying to do there, at least in part, was to point out incongruities — to suggest that even though Hold was being considered for the position of secretary of state, inside the home he was still the youngest brother, the kid who didn’t know enough to use a handkerchief.

Q: So the fact that this novel came well along in your writing career does not reflect that you have been brooding about, perhaps building toward, a novel about the Jewish experience?

HELLER: No, empathically not. I got the idea for this book immediately after giving a reading from Catch-22 and Something Happened in Wilmington, Delaware. Afterward, in a small question group, a woman asked me why I have never written about the Jewish experience. I answered that I had only two ideas for a novel in twenty-one years, so I certainly wasn’t excluding it. And then I said, I wasn’t at all sure I was qualified to write about the topic, I wasn’t sure I was that much in touch with the experience as the writers who had already handled it so wonderfully, writers like Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth. But while I was going home on the Metroliner, I began musing about the possibilities and began making notes. By the time I got off the train, I had the idea for the novel; a book about a guy who got an advance for a book about the “Jewish Experience” and then realized he hadn’t had any such experience.

Q: But, by the end of the novel, doesn’t the reader at least perceive Gold has a more profound and important “Jewish Experience” than Gold himself realizes?

HELLER: I suppose, but Gold is correct in perceiving his “Jewish Experience” is far removed from, say, Dubin’s, in Malamud’s new book, or from any character in Malamud’s work.

Q: One character in Good as Gold, Gold’s father Julius, especially fascinated me: Despite his cantankerous, sarcastic, patriarchal, egocentric nature, I wound up liking Julius Gold enormously.

HELLER: Good. If I may immodestly say so, I think that’s one of the achievements — I don’t have the nerve to say triumphs, of the novel. I had originally decided to depict him as an almost sock character — a nasty, vile-natured, old tyrant — but about halfway through the writing I decided I’d do that, but also try to persuade the reader to feel sorry for him at the end. Julius is right and the children are right too. When he complains that he took care of his parents and now his children don’t want him, he’s addressing something that’s prevalent throughout the country. We don’t want our old people with us. It’s similar to a line in Something Happened where the text says something to the effect that Slocum’s aged mother became a burden to him as soon as he no longer needed her.

Q: You’ve done something in Good as Gold with narrative point of view that is unprecedented, even for you. I must confess that the effect of Catch-22’s order out of chaos and the “Beckettean” voice of Something Happened had an enormous impact upon me. But in this one, the unnamed third-person-omniscient narrator actually shows up in the text, concedes he could have served Gold better, and predicts what will happen later in the tale. Then, a couple of pages later, a reference is made to an author named “Joseph Heller.” Now, you’ve never done this before. Had you planned it from the start?

HELLER: Yes. From the start I planned injecting the first-person pronoun into the novel fairly regularly, and doing so in a way that would incline the reader to infer that that first-person voice belonged to me, Joseph Heller. I wanted very much to have some kind of sustained, perhaps disconcerting, reminder to the reader that this is only a story, that it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. What happened was, as I wrote the book, I began to worry that the effect mighty be too precious — I had even conceived at one point of having dialogues between a character and “me” — and I was worried it would prove too jarring upon the reader. What I ultimately decided to do was include a number of lines here and there that would have the same effect but that would not stand out. For example, in addition to the passages you mentioned, there was the occasion when Gold was musing, first, upon the extraordinary situation of awaiting a high government appointment while hustling a book, and then upon the fact that this was exactly what Kissinger was doing. The next sentence says, “in a novel, no one would have believed it.” That sort of thing happens often. I don’t know if you noticed the way the allusions to Dickens operate. On one occasion the phrase occurs, and it’s a borrowed simile, “as solitary as an oyster.” In ensuing passages there are a number of criticisms that seem to apply to Charles Dickens but have also been applied to Something Happened and Catch-22: too long, too many characters, too many improbable events. But, to answer your question, I finally decided in that one chapter, and only in that one, to introduce formally the “I” narrator. I suppose it was almost an attempt to disarm criticism and, in a humorous way, do something integral to the sense of the novel.

Q: This intrusion of the narrator, this confronting the reader with a tension between narrated even and “realistic” fact, reminded me of Laurence Sterne’s eighteenth-century novel, Tristram Shandy. Are there “Shandyean” influences on your novel?

HELLER: Oh yes, I had Tristram Shandy very much in mind for this book. That’s the reason I refer to it so often.

Q: And, am I correct in thinking Good as Gold Shandyean in a special sense: specifically, in that Sterne’s novel, to a significant extent, is a book about the composition of the book Tristram Shandy?

HELLER: Yes.

Q: So, to an extent, Good as Gold is a book about the composition of the book Good as Gold?

HELLER: It is, except that by the time it’s over, Gold himself still hasn’t started it.

Q: At least he seems a lot better off for having gone through all the events and scrapes in the novel.

HELLER: He is. He’s not necessarily a better man, but he has shaken off those ambitions that are presented in the book as ignoble. He’s resolved not to use public service, for instance, as a camouflage for personal and social advancement.

Q: And despite his announced contempt for Kissinger, he has finally stopped becoming, in effect, a Kissinger.

HELLER: Oh yes. Kissinger was not simply a target of Gold’s envy; he was a model for what could be achieved.

Q: I have to admit that I can recall very few major satirists who deal as directly and vigorously with real figures — people like Kissinger, Helms, Haig, Kleindienst — as you do in Good as Gold. I wonder if working with real people makes the writing more difficult, or more nerve-wracking, or easier?

HELLER: It’s not as major a departure as it may seem. Catch-22 was originally going to deal with some well-known figures, but by the time the book was ready for publication most of them were dying or losing power. In this particular book, I felt it worked well. But, no, it wasn’t easier or harder to work with specific public figures. In fact, I suspect that if I were regularly employed as a satiric columnist, I would probably find it much easier to work with specifically identified figures. And keep in mind that most of the direct references take the form of verbatim quotations of newspaper pieces.

Q: Another thing that interested me was the effect that writing about the Vietnam War had upon you. It seemed apparent in Something Happened that you felt a sense of moral outrage over our role in the war, and in this one Gold seems to boil in rage at some aspect of it. Was it difficult to write about an issue that is so enraging and draining?

HELLER: No, and this is true of Catch-22 as well. When I’m writing, I am only interested in writing. Now when I’m not writing, I confess I can hear something that will make me boil over. A phrase that really gets to me, for instance, would be one of those neoconservative references to Vietnam as a national tragedy, but only because we lost. That thought fills me with ire. To begin with, the person who says it is typically untouched by tragedy; like me, he has not lost a son or a job. In addition, the implication is that if we had won, the war would have been somehow less tragic. People with that mentality, I have to admit, impress me as being the scum of the earth.

Q: But when writing you don’t find yourself consumed with savage indignation, as Swift put it? When you were creating Gold’s abject fury over what was done and said during the Vietnam era, you weren’t churning inside?

HELLER: No, and the same was true of Catch-22. One of the most stirring portions of Catch-22, and I know this because I’ve read it to audiences, is the passage that describes Snowden’s death. When I wrote that, I recall having finished it and then sitting back and wanting to smile. It’s not that I was dismissive or callous. But I knew it was done well. I knew it was right. At the moment of composition I felt no sympathy for Snowden, none for Yosarian, none for Gold. It’s not that I’m devoid of such emotions. But many people don’t realize the degree of detachment, the intensity of concentration, required in serious writing.

Q: And yet I hope you would agree that all of your works are intensely moral. In other words, you’re not simply playing games with the issues you’re working with.

HELLER: Oh yes, definitely.

Q: I guess what I’m trying to say is that what Gold says about Kissinger seems to me to be so right and moral and profound.

HELLER: But keep in mind that Gold is not that much of an idealist. If you want to talk about a character who can, well, denounce Kissinger, I think the President’s unnamed source, Ralph Newsome, might be a better candidate. Ralph uses invective against Kissinger far more effectively. To me, his terms for Kissinger are far more impressive than Gold’s since Gold’s are largely spoken in anger.

Q: Perhaps I’m not prepared to admit Ralph’s virtues since I found him so dislikable.

HELLER: They like him as a character. There’s a candor to him. After the book was finished, he began to remind me of Milo Minderbinder in Catch-22. He is willing to say what is actually so. He is genuinely embarrassed when Gold advises him his definition of a friend is someone who would hide him. If you’ll recall, after Gold does ask Ralph to hide him, Ralph apologizes and says — and he’s genuinely contrite — “Oh God, Bruce, I’m not your friend; I’m sorry if I said anything to give you that impression.” Then again, I may be the wrong person to ask. I wound up more or less liking Conover, the bigot, and even the Texas governor — who to a degree resembles John Connally. It’s similar to what happened in Catch-22 with General Dreedle and Milo. Conversely, I have to admit that I have a hero who was intended to be an unsympathetic figure. Morally, Gold is an ignominious person. He wound up the way Bob Slocum of Something Happened started out to be.

Q: Maybe I was forewarned by Catch-22, but when I was barely into Good as Gold and when I realized you were raining character down upon me, I grabbed a pencil and scribbled a family tree of sorts. At the end, when you again managed to bring all the characters and subplots together, as you did in Catch-22, I was filled with admiration. What I wonder is, when you wrote it did you compose it the way I read it, that is, in an episodic way? Did you have an elaborate master plan from the start?

HELLER: I wrote it largely the way you read it. This book required very little in the way of outlining, almost none in fact. In the instance you cited, I decided to make a virtue out of necessity. I knew I wanted to handle a large number of people and I knew it was going to be virtually impossible to linger over each and define each character without killing the pace of the book. So what I did was have Gold react in the book to this swarm of people the way the reader would. If you’ll recall, Gold occasionally will forget the names of the people to whom he’s talking and will begin improvising names arbitrarily — sometimes it’s a name from Dickens, sometimes from Greek mythology. I think this is an unavoidable problem in the modern novel. Perhaps in a Russian novel you could afford the luxury of a couple of hundred pages of character delineation. But modern readers don’t have the patience for that sort of thing.

Q: What about characters who don’t show up until late in the novel, character like Linda Book?

HELLER: I had though through all the major characters, and she’s a good example, right from the start. At least, I did it as soon as I decided this was going to be a major novel. When I began Good as Gold, my intention was to dash off a short, frivolous book. I felt that, after the years and years I spent on Something Happened, it would be pleasant to concentrate on something that would be short and quick. At least, I finished it in three years.

Q: That’s true. The others took seven and fourteen years.

HELLER: Believe me, I’ll settle for three for the next one.

Q: Do you have an idea for the next one?

HELLER: None at all. Maybe I should go back to Wilmington and give another reading.