Herbert Gold, Novelist


In a memoir published not long after the death of his younger brother, Herbert Gold recalls moments from their childhood when the two boys would lie awake at night in the bedroom they shared, inventing stories to amuse and frighten one another. He speculates that it may well have been those late-night sessions that set him permanently into what he calls “the storytelling mode.”

It seems only natural that Gold would have looked back in time to try to find the determining events that propelled him into a writing career spanning more than half a century. And it is equally natural that he would have turned his gaze to his childhood in Cleveland, where the influences of what he calls “regular-folks America” began to shape his perspective and propel him into the wider world in search of all that was new and different.

Born in suburban Lakewood in 1924, Gold chafed at the social and intellectual constraints imposed on a bright Jewish boy growing up in a complacent and decidedly gentile part of town. His forays into and around Depression-era Cleveland in search of excitement and new experience were the classic wanderings of the misplaced Bohemian, and the memories he accumulated during those years would appear
in various forms again and again in his writing.

A contemporary of the Beat-era poets and novelists, Gold traversed much the same path as his fellow explorers. After World War II, he attended Columbia University in New York, where he got to know many of the writers who would give the generation its name (including poet Allen Ginsberg, with whom he maintained an on-again, off-again friendship for decades). As a Fulbright fellow he attended the University of Paris, where he wrote his first novel, Birth of a Hero, which was published in 1951.

But Gold differed from most of his contemporaries in two important ways. Early on, he adopted a more consistent and professional approach to his career (over the years he would publish more than 20 novels, as well as innumerable short stories, essays, memoirs, and magazine articles). And although he knew well the coffee-house worlds of Greenwich Village and the Left Bankwhat he calls “the Bohemian archipelago”he was in but not of them. He never embraced the detached, ultra-cool tone with which the Beats were so enamored, and his work always seemed to be colored by the more profoundly human influences of a childhood and adolescence spent in Cleveland. He has lived in San Francisco's hip North Beach neighborhood since the 1960s, but through it all he has remained essentially a Midwestern boy.

In his best novels and short stories, Gold infuses a blend of humor, insight and compassion into his explorations of the human condition. Everything is fair gamethe lives of his family, of characters met and imagined and, in particular, the progression of his own journey through the world. He revels in follieshis own and those of his creations on the pagebut his true search is for the words, the gestures, the moments that define and reveal us. He writes in an emphatically American voice, as befits an artist who first slipped into the storytelling mode in the very middle of the American heartland.

—Mark Gottlieb



A Father Observed

Noisy, brawling, weeping or alcoholic fathers must, to some extent, inoculate their children against the fearsome separations wrought by excitement. My father usually had things under control. He kept the lid on. I have seen him drunk once. On a Christmas Eve it was; he stamped into the house after the fruit store closed, wearing his sheepskin coat, snowy and wet and laughing in a way that frightened me. My mother kept trying to shush him (babies sleeping) and crowd him into bed. He reeled through the hall, and when his wild eye fell upon me, it made no connection. He was roaring, but what about? Nothing. Just roaring. Perhaps his Chassidic father sometimes thus celebrated the God-given right to roar like a beast. Perhaps he roared for the unforgettable and the forgotten.

I hid behind a door and put my nose in the crack. I watched my father. If he pushed the doorless nose.

In silence I watched him, and in a terror of loneliness. To be present when a father laughs, and yet to be so alone! My wet nose was in jeopardy against the crack of the door. This was no Chassidic mystery. There was no ritual to grasp at; it was his festival, his alone, personal, excluding. He was thick and powerful in tufted yellow sheepskin, and the crating hammer, with flat silvery prongs, stuck out of his pants pocket. There was also a bulge of holiday monea good day's business. He had come from the party he gave in the back room for the Italians who worked in his store. Probably Myrna, the bulging widow clerk, the heaviest thumb on any scale in town, the tightest corset, had led to wildness. She always wanted him to let go, push and shove, be a truck driver with her. With her swollen lips and her hilarious shrieks of laughter, she had everything figured out in her own sweet way. A tangle of widow's desire. My mother could settle that score later.

It was Christmas Eve; this was America; all down the streets of Lakewood, Ohio, children and parents put their lives together in momentary communion. Only in our house did the father celebrate without making his meaning clear.

Why did this come to be my model of isolation, separation?

Fathers (Random House, 1962)



In Search of His Jewish Roots

I heard there were Jews like me toward the east and, at age seventeen, just out of high school, I set forth, past Shaker Heights to Pittsburgh and New York, by hitchhiking thumb, to work in restaurants for meals, sleep in odd places, find redeeming adventure.
I spent a wanderyear traveling, sending postcards to my parents.

My father came to America from Russia and lived in a basement on the Lower East Side.
I came to America from Lakewood to live in a basement on the Lower East Side. I washed dishes, cleaned rooms, waited on tables, and tried to learn a little Yiddish. In 1942 there was still an immigrant society in those streets, men who looked and smelled like my father.

I traveled in a dazed adolescent crisis, suddenly finding sex and Jews everywhere in the land of plenty. There were Jewish shoeshine men and Jewish whores and Jewish cops. I was a Jewish kid with hands smelling persistently of grease and strong soap. I slept in the kitchen of a Rumanian restaurant on Hester Street. I learned to drink coffee and smoke cigarets [sic], my eyes gritty with longing, my mouth rehearsing superior rejoinders, my heart reconstructing my tragic past (Lucille, Susan, Lakewood, the unendurable Midwest indefinitely prolonged). When the winter got too cold, and my hands were peeling and swollen, I hitchhiked southward. In Philadelphia. I was picked up by a drunken Buick dealer who was escaping his wife and children, escaping his life, and he needed someone to drive so he could drink and talk and forget. Now I was a Jewish chauffeur. I was also a seventeen-year-old Jewish psychiatrist.

My Last Two Thousand Years (Random House, 1970)


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