Undercover: Heller’s ‘Gold’ All That Glitters (05/17/79)

In the last week, I’ve made my way through a number of books that delivered mostly worthy disappointment. Caroline Richards’s Sweet Country (Harcourt) is a deeply felt novel about the fall of Salvador Allende’s Chile; the writing clunks like soap-opera dialogue, putting the drama out of reach time and again. A couple of years ago John Sayles published Union Dues, an interesting novel about working-class dis-affection and radical communes; The Anarchists’ Convention (Atlantic-Little, Brown), his new collection of short stories, again shows a fine ear and an inability (or unwillingness) to make a plot work as more than an excuse for closely observed anomie.

Max Crawford’s The Bad Communist (Harcourt) is fiction based very closely—too closely—on the activities of white radicals and terrorists in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early Seventies. It’s a great subject, full of contradictions that have not been so much resolved as deflected, and Crawford lets you understand what it meant for middle-class professionals living in the suburbs to turn to political murder: the feeling of displacement, of the everyday world pulled inside out, is so strong Crawford could have called the book “Memphis Blues Again.” But because he refuses to imagine much beyond certain real-life characters and events, the novel is stillborn, a memoir that dare not say its name because too many of the crimes it deals with remain on the books. The Bad Communist gave me chills, but had it not been set in my hometown, I might not have finished it. As for more celebrated or promotable work…

Good as Gold, a novel by Joseph Heller (Simon & Schuster, $12.95). Not even fool’s gold, which occurs naturally, and not even a serious failure, which might command respect, this shaggy-dog story about the tyranny of Jewish family life and government double talk seems to me a fake—a put-up job carrying not a bit of conviction, a depressingly fashionable example of bullshit pessimism complete with a fashionably “ironic” happy ending. Be that as it may, any number of critics have shown themselves ready to rewrite literary history in order to service current product: at least two reviewers pronounced this two-joke novel far superior to Catch-22, which they then necessarily had to dismiss as a one-joke novel. A new paperback edition of Catch-22 arrived in the mail the other day, and as I was looking through it, I wondered what the one joke might be—the one about Milo Minderbinder, or the one about Major Major Major Major, or the one about the woman Aarfy kills, or the one about Snowden…

Black Macho & the Myth of the Superwoman, by Michele Wallace (Dial, $7.95). Question of the month: why has this pedestrian little tract been hailed by Robin Morgan as a book that “could change history” and its author claimed by Susan Brownmiller as someone “who may save us all”? Both women turn out a lot of blurbs; are they running short of adjectives? Wallace, as it happens, is not Joan of Arc, but a young black woman who writes as if she’s spent her life listening to people tell her she’s brilliant; the result is a senior-thesis-style piece of work that would get an A+ from an intimidated professor, and a B, or possibly an F, from a good one.

Wallace’s argument is that black politics over the last twenty years, particularly in its radical, post-civil-rights-movement phase, was not seriously aimed at social change, but was a means to immediate personal gratification for black men; that black women went along with the game; and that the (thus necessary) failure of blacks to achieve the goals they set for themselves has left black men, black women, white women and white men more alienated, mistrustful and powerless than before. At least that’s what Wallace says her argument is. The theme is pursued with such arrogance (“…Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, whom no man in his right mind would want, except, perhaps patient old Uncle Tom”), such casual disdain for (or ignorance of) the blood that was spilled, the victories that were won, the unities that were forged and treasured, that one comes away wondering how this book could possibly change or save anything, with the exception of Wallace’s career as a media darling. This is, finally, quite a venal book, revisionist in the worst sense of the word, contemptuous of history, ever ready to damn the men and women of the past for failing to conform to the conventional wisdom of the present.

Rolling Stone, May 17, 1979

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