Good as Gold, by Joseph Heller, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979, 447 pp., $12.95.
In Good as Gold, a White House assistant tells an office-hunter: "The President doesn't want yes-men. What we want are independent men of integrity who will agree with all our decisions after we make them. You'll be entirely on your own." Bruce Gold, a restless professor of English, skates through the term by assigning his students elaborately useless projects. His teenage daughter swears like a waterfront wench. His brother, Sid, cherishes memories of adultery in Acapulco. The magazine editor who prints provocative, insubstantial essays pushes his fatuous autobiography on publisher friends. Gold sleeps with Andrea, daughter of a rich Protestant, while fretting that his book on "the Jewish experience" won't gel. Washington says he can be secretary of state because he favorably reviewed the president's political memoirs.
If the book sounds rather close to fact to score as satire, there is a reason. Joseph Heller's novel is too tame. It evokes no sense of the extreme. Far from exaggerations, his characters are the people all around us, his plot straight from the papers. Heller plays the wise guy, thinking flashy intellect and barbed jokes will cut deep, like in Catch 22. But he is fighting an entirely different enemy in an arena of laxity.
In rigid surroundings, satire thrives. Army men, bound by regulations and rank, say "Yes, sir," march in formation, and salute. Solid penalties confront rebels. The targets are clear, and satire strikes hard. Yossarian sits in a tree naked for roll call with unmistakable effect. He shocks the military with values that challenge theirs. But wishy-washy civilians in our day change values like old clothes and join exotic cliques that have no common ground. To them, Yossarian is a cultist, a nature freak, a "cra-a-zy guy," not an affront. Civilians say live-and-let-live, demand little.
The climate favors eccentrics—the nation is full of them—but is hell on satire. Satire employs nonsense to uphold values forgotten or denied by the established order. When the order doesn't care about values, satire can't hurt. Good as Gold fires weak wisecracks at weak values, expecting to offend where, in fact, anything goes.
Any number of lines illustrate the difficulty. In the ones that follow, Joannie Gold answers her brother's question: "If you want to know what my Jewish experience is, I can tell you. It's trying not to be. We play golf now, get drunk, take tennis lessons, and have divorces, just like normal Christian Americans. We talk dirty. We screw around, commit adultery."
If drunkenness and divorce mattered any more, if people balked at equating them with golf and tennis, if lapsed Jews felt genuine shame, the lines would sting. But there are as many arguments for as against what used to be called sin. Instead of contempt, the lines convey ambiguity. No one can tell whether Joannie is sorry, spiteful, offended, or something else entirely.
The lack of common ground—of what Prof. John Phelan of Fordham refers to as "cultural arbitration"—nullifies satire. When every point is debatable, every standard a personal standard, writers cannot meet the definition. Vices, follies, stupidities, abuses—all the traditional targets of the genre—are meaningless.
After punching values of jelly for 300 losing pages, Heller finally throws up his hands. He sets down a statement of disgust that sounds like an admission of failure: he simply can't find a solid center to modern politics and love. "Once again Gold found himself preparing to lunch with someone," the third-person paragraph begins, and then switches in midsentence: "and the thought arose that he was spending an awful lot of time in this book eating and talking. There was not much else to be done with him."
In two dissonant lines Heller writes off his efforts so far. A waste, he says, longing for just one pig-headed regulation. "I was putting him into bed a lot with Andrea and keeping his wife and children conveniently in the background. For Acapulco, I contemplated fabricating a hectic mixup which would include a sensual Mexican television actress and a daring attempt to escape in the nude through a stuck second-story bedroom window, while a jealous lover crazed on American drugs was beating down the door with his fists and Belle or packs of barking wild dogs were waiting below. Certainly he would soon meet a schoolteacher with four children with whom he would fall madly in love." What he was making was lots of anachronistic satire. Trouble is, people aren't shocked by adultery—real-life or hyped satirical—any more. They let their values hang loose. They shun norms. Live-and-let-live. More Andrea and Gold in bed would only add pages.
The White House never makes Gold secretary of state. He loses interest in politics about the time he deserts Andrea. Home and family again draw him in, and Jewish tradition takes hold of his life. The event that works the magic—Heller treats Gold's retrenchment as mystical—is the death of Sid. For Heller's valueless characters, grief is the sole rallying point. A pack of errant Jews suddenly sits shivah.
This, finally, is satire of a sort. Instead of distorting things people do in life, Heller distorts things they would never do. Death reforms whole families. An expired adulterer revalidates the Torah. Jews without faith, trying like Joannie "not to be," would sooner swallow pop thanatology (like "Christian Americans"): death the ultimate "life experience"; the dead envied; sadness passé. The problem persists. When the target denies the weapon, satire can't score.
Paul Hornak is a newspaperman living in the Middle East.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Tarnished Satire".