On Herbert Gold’s FATHERS, “a Novel in the Form of a Memoir”

I first became aware of Herbert Gold sometime in the late ’70s while strolling through the main library in San Francisco’s Civic Center. Several display cases had been set up to celebrate Gold’s life and work. These included photographs, manuscripts, first editions. It was fascinating to discover an author, important in San Francisco culture, I hadn’t heard about before. Some of the books, open to first chapters, already appeared old and yellowed by then: Gold at that point had been publishing novels for almost thirty years.  Maybe they came across as old because of the austere museum-like atmosphere of this display in the august foyer of the public library. But there was something else: so much history had transpired between the early ’50s and the late ’70s that this prolific author and these many volumes—with somewhat dated titles like The Age of Happy Problems, The Man Who Was Not With It, Haiti: Best Nightmare on Earth—seemed to give off an old-time smell of 1961 and Camelot and propeller planes and pre-Beatles America.

The next time I heard of Gold was when I opened a dusty literary magazine in a house in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and read a short story about a father and his young daughter. It was exquisitely written, nothing dated about it at all. At one point the father is driving and his daughter is resting her head on his lap; he describes her half-closed/narrowed eyes as “cunning.”  That word stood out—cunning! Yes of course! That’s how narrowed eyes may seem, even if the person narrowing them may have nothing cunning on her mind!  But not much happened in the story. I believe the parents had just gone through a divorce. Maybe it was the classic weekend visit with the father. And still the piece stood out.  I was nineteen then and didn’t pick up anything by or about Herbert Gold for over thirty years. I never forgot the museum display, though; and I never forgot the short story, possibly from the venerable Hudson Review.

Now I have finally read some Gold cover to cover: his “novel in the form of a memoir” called Fathers.  It is a novel (to use his word) about a Jewish boy who emigrates from Ukraine to America in the late 1800s at a young age. He takes the name Gold and works for pennies, wearing rags and sleeping rough. Later he leaves New York and ends up in Cleveland, where he opens a store, slowly climbs to middle class status, marries, starts a family. The spotlight is very much on young Herbert’s relationship with his father; everything else is secondary. The portrait of the elder Gold is nuanced, tender, utterly complete; by novel’s end we feel we know Sam Gold as well as anyone from our own family:

As my mother talked, my father measured us from under a vast biblical forehead which had sojourned in Kamenets-Podolsk; it was a forehead that escaped the scars of reprisal for a tradesman’s life customarily given a man who needed labor in the open air. He wrestled out this frozen compression, these knotty ravages, at the cost of an overquickening in the work of the store, wielding cases with a plunging violence and mounting trucks like a burly fruit-store tomcat. Overhappiness too is a threat, Zarathustra said. The yellow flecks of his long narrow eyes fumed in contemplation. His sons were strange animals, born in America.

The novel has ingenious passages like this on almost every page.  Here’s a short one: “He swayed over the soup, food breathing back into his body the prayers he had forgotten in leaving his own father.”

This book should be read for its subtle, complex insights and poetic language; this book should be read (but is it still read?) for its portrayal of the charismatic and ultimately enigmatic Sam Gold. Now I see there is nothing “old-fashioned” about Herbert Gold’s books (at least not this one) except perhaps the 1950s-style covers. This work does have one weakness, which has perhaps kept it from getting on the lists of highly regarded or “great books” of mid-century America; it is a weakness that Gold probably understood when he called it “a novel in the form of a memoir”: in the arc of the narrative as a whole, there is no drama, no suspense; but more than that, there isn’t much, on the macro level, that could be called compelling. These were, after all, the days before Angela’s Ashes, a book which finally freed (or some would say fatally freed) writers to fictionalize their lives, to spice their life stories with the intensity of Wuthering Heights.  An example of this comes at the very beginning, in a prologue: we see the 80-year-old father and mother visiting the now grown Herbert in San Francisco and looking out at the bay. This serene first scene functions like a kind of friendly home movie. And it tells us that the parents are all right and prospering (in other words we see the happy ending), which undermines the rest of the book.  If Gold had dispensed with the prologue, going directly to the Old Country with the very young Sam insisting on leaving for America, we’d have more a sense of suspense about what’s going to happen next.

Recently I came across a website called TV Tropes. It analyzes drama, opera, film, and literary works in terms of countless tropes, which contributors to the site name in the easiest possible way, to facilitate finding them on the site. For example, I typed in “evil stepmother” (a trope that figures prominently in the memoir I’m writing!) and found that on that site it’s called “wicked stepmother.” Now, having just finished Gold’s Fathers, I look for tropes everywhere and label them as I please: “immigrant child coming to America” (picture the early scene from The Godfather Part Two, the young Vito Corleone surrounded by many hungry others first beholding—to sweeping music—the Statue of Liberty from a ship); “immigrant making good in America” (again, see the Godfather Part Two); “artistic child clashes with business-oriented father” (see Dead Poets’ Society, the opera Louise, the novel Buddenbrooks, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister);  “the son who catches philandering relatives” (see Proust’s Swann’s Way); “persecuted East European Jews about to leave for the New World” (see Fiddler on the Roof); “revenge for a slight settled with a duel” (see Eugene Onegin, poem and opera) and so on. One can go on all day looking for tropes, until it becomes an exhausting obsession.

What Fathers lacks in overall tension/excitement, it makes up for with smaller, episodic dramas. There is the memorable story of two concentration camp survivors who confront each other at an Ohio coffee klatch. There is the engrossing and moving story of Herbert’s rebellion against his bourgeois father as a twelve-year-old—what reader can’t relate to this rebellion? And fascinatingly this fight mirrors the rebellion of the older Gold who in the late 1800s defied his own father by going off to America. Gold leaves the most poignant story for the end; it’s something that happened long before Herb and even Sam were born, and it’s about Sam’s grandfather, who back in the 1830s (“which might as well have been the twelfth century”) was forced to undergo mutilation in order to avoid being taken away by the Czar’s army and never heard from again. He was just a little boy when his parents took him to “The Crippler,” who specialized in cutting off hands, feet, eyes, ears, so boys’ lives would be spared. We find out that Sam’s grandfather lived to be well over a hundred, and he died before the Holocaust, so in a sense his life ended happily. And still, the scene in which he is taken to the Crippler is horrific. And it really happened. How could such things happen?

The boy clung to his mother. The Crippler paused because he had to justify himself to no one, and yet he was human too, although a crippler. He had been crippled himself—he walked with a limp. He fixed the child with his fierce gaze and said, as if to give him courage:

            “Out of the right eye he will see like a tiger. How many sights can you see with two eyes? No more than with a good right eye. I’ll only take the extra one, come here”—and he bent with his beard jutting toward the terrified child while my great-grandfather’s father suddenly wept and prayed.

            “Come here, son. Come here. Here.”

            Blessed art thou the Lord our God the Lord is one.

            The boy screamed.

            The Crippler did his deed.

 

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