GOD KNOWS by Joseph Heller


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Some Promised Land. The honey was there, but the milk we brought in with our goats. To people in California, God gives a magnificent coastline, a movie industry, and Beverly Hills. To us He gives:sand. To Cannes He gives a plush film festival. We get the PLO." Who's that talking, you ask? That's none other than the Old Testament's King David, who retells his long Biblical story on his deathbed--with a voice (and a viewpoint) that's part Mel Brooks, part Woody Allen, and all Joseph Heller. King David lies dying, terminally cold, unwarmed even by the lovely virgin Abishag the Shunammite. He still lusts after zaftig wife Bathsheba, who won't accommodate David's lust until he agrees to declare Solomon--a doltish plagiarist--as successor to the crown of Israel. So the miserable old king remembers the whole shmear: from crazy Saul and stupid Goliath to poor, snake-ish Absalom. And Heller has a generous grab-bag of ironic, earthy ideas here: David the psalmist, the career-poet, jealous when his best material is stolen by Solomon; David the Jewish husband, with first-wife Michal as the original J.A.P.; David the aging scion and general. Throughout, in fact, the Biblical original is worked through closely, with impressive stamina and elaboration--and, as a short story or novella, perhaps, the notion would have been pure champagne. . . even if clearly pressed from the grapes of Brooks' 2000-Year-Old-Man routines. Here, however, as in George MacDonald Fraser's swashbuckling parody, The Pyrates (p. 586), the basic gimmicks--the blithely outrageous anachronisms, the double-takes, the raunchy Yiddish/English slang, the varied lampoons on King James Bible phraseology--become dutiful and predictable at big-novel length. Meanwhile, Heller's more interesting character/history/theology inventions (e.g., the David/Bathsheba relationship) remain undeveloped, with the Borscht Belt rhythms too relentless to allow for depth or nuance. And the entire vaudeville enterprise eventually seems wilted, formula-creased. Still, what Heller manages to do with faithful attention to the scriptures of Samuel I and II and Kings is often remarkable. ("The first time I laid eyes on Abigail--I was girded for battle and thirsting for vengeance as I marched along the road to Carmel--my member grew hard as hickory and I sheepishly and modestly veiled it from notice with a folded newspaper.") It's also often shtick-ishly hilarious: "'You said pisseth, didn't you?' 'Pisseth?' "That'th right. You thaid all who pisseth against the wall.' 'I timid pisseth?' I was furious now and answered him with a heat that equaled his own. 'I thaid no thuch thing.' 'Yeth, you did. Athk anyone.'" So, though sometimes only half-amusing and never really persuasive as a serious theological farce (David is waiting for an apology from God), Heller's Biblical free-for-all is sure to win a substantial, curious, browsing-and-sampling audience.
Pub Date: Oct. 8th, 1984
ISBN: 0684841258
Page count: 373pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1984


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