GOOD AS GOLD
Critics rightly complained that Bob Slocum, the "hero" of Heller's last novel, Something Happened, was really Jewish beneath his WASP trappings. Well, now Heller atones for his ethnic coverup--with a vengeance. Bruce Gold is, there is no mistaking, a Jew. A college professor and bored writer of articles and books of "fiery caution and crusading inertia," he comes to the attention of the White House, through an old school chum on the staff there. The Washington idiots love Bruce's turns of phrase ("Nothing succeeds as planned," "boggle the mind"); the more imbecilic the prose, the more they adore it, and they offer him a position anywhere on the scale from "close Presidential source" to Secretary of State. (Bruce would love that, if only to crown his obsessive hatred of Henry Kissinger, whom he can't talk about without lapsing into a wicked, galled display of Yiddish.) The White House here plainly stands for archetypal Goyishe kup stupidity, the way the Army stood for confusion and lunacy in Catch-22, with about the same effect: a balloon-y, cartoon-y straw man of manic plenitude. But Heller's real talents come bursting out when he's dealing with Bruce among his own. Bruce's old friends from Coney Island all suddenly appear--successful publishers, doctors, editors of little magazines: "Invite a Jew to the White House--and you make him your slave." A shady garment manufacturer, Spotty Weinrock, and his practical-joke-playing doctor brother, Murshie, are hilarious, Mel-Brooksian portraits. And the book positively sings when Bruce is at table with his family. There's his octogenarian father, whom everyone wants to ship down to a Miami Beach condominium, but who refuses to leave--he couldn't bear to forgo the pleasure of noodging his grown children with 80 years' worth of stored-up contrariness and belittling. And there's older brother Sid, plus five sisters, who've been put on earth (as Bruce sees it) to make him feel like dreck, but in a "nice" way. If this nearly plotless book doesn't add up, all the big pieces provide a great, sloppy, assaulting, impolite comic energy. Heller's loose now, less focused and taking different sorts of risks; here he's flagrantly, Yiddishiy Jewish, taking us deep into familial dread and laughter.