- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 10, 2008

A TEMPORARY CONDITION

By Herbert Gold

Arcade Publishing, $25, 249 pages

REVIEWED BY WILLIAM F. GAVIN

I began reviewing books a long time ago, either in the late-Paleozoic Era, or the early Mesozoic Era (memory fails). One day, I believe in 1962, I received “The Age of Happy Problems,” by Herbert Gold. I recall being impressed by Mr. Gold’s prose style. He was a writer, not just an author, crafting sentences and paragraphs with care and evident delight. He had a wry, slightly off-center, sense of humor that I enjoyed. On my portable manual typewriter, I hunt-and-pecked 700 words of what was no doubt faultless, sparkling prose, mailed the review in a manila envelope, and then waited … and waited … for the mere pittance I was paid for my heroic labors. Since then, I have forgotten exactly what Mr. Gold meant by “happy problems.” It may well have been his way of criticizing the mindless books and plays and movies of the Sixties in which happy characters happily made their happy way to happy endings.

But the concept of “happy problems” became part of my mental apparatus, and over the decades it has helped me to differentiate between, and then deal with, trivial and serious challenges. Trying to decide how to spend lottery money presents us with problems — Should I buy a car? Go on a vacation? Save the money? — but these are happy problems, because no matter how we choose to solve them, we win. Unhappy problems are those which, no matter how we try to solve them, we lose, so the best we can hope for is to cut our losses. Don’t use the same amount of energy and time and spirit trying to solve happy problems as you do unhappy problems.

In any event, since I wrote that review, Mr. Gold’s career flourished (I suggest no cause-and-effect relationship). He has written 20 novels, a memoir and reportage about mysterious places like Haiti and San Francisco. Now, in his 70s, he has added another memoir, “Still Alive!,” and I am happy to report he writes as well as ever.

He describes a San Francisco friend as “a freelance seeker who left part of her cerebral cortex on pawn with the LSD dealer ….” An untrustworthy art dealer in Haiti is captured perfectly in a few words: “A kid from Princeton, (family trusts well past their peak, capital eroded), a marginal litterateur, but a first-rate tennis player.” And Mr. Gold doesn’t spare himself. He is an “adjusted misfit” of “upper medium height” who, “*ivorced and grieving, a gray-flecked swinging single… went out to sow my tame oats.”

As he ages, not so gracefully, he finds himself the victim of a rare disease, “Restless Beatnik Syndrome with Nosy Metaphysical Complications. My doctor doesn’t have a remedy, so I’ve self-medicated with Mozart, Bob Dylan, Woods-Walking and Cafe-Sitting.” In California, he tells us, “routines of physical fitness are sacred, like the marriage bed in other countries.”

He has a gift for friendship with odd people, or perhaps it is normal people with some odd views of the world. There’s his old pal Harold, who can’t wait to get back home from a trip so he can tell his wife he was seriously tempted by a ravishing, willing woman, but didn’t give in. When Mr. Gold suggests the wife may not be happy to hear about “the eye contact, the hot knees, what you both wanted,” Harold replies, “Oh, Herb, she’ll be so proud of me.”

In the most touching part of the book, Mr. Gold writes of his deeply troubled, beloved younger brother Sid, “King of the Cleveland Beatniks,” who spent 50 years writing a novel he never showed to anyone and never completed. “Within the unhappiness, he took pleasures in the newspaper, gossiping, coffee, his daydreams, his moments of resolute note-taking, and the clattering bursts of his garage-sale manual typewriter. Bits of envelopes, torn edges of newsprint, stuck out his pockets …[h]e emitted opinions, often stubbornly wrong, distracted by melancholy. He had lost pride. He had found grief early. His life was a long retreat. His sadness grew more intense as time went by.” The rhythms, the telling details, the elegiac quality of the tone - if there is anyone writing better than Mr. Gold at his best, I’d love to know who it is.

Does the book sometimes show a tendency toward telling the same joke or story a few times?

“There’s some repetitions,” he writes, “or, as I prefer to define it, elaboration (Complaints may be addressed to the Literary Structure Licensing Bureau).”

I have no room left to discuss Mr. Gold’s tales of his childhood in Lakewood Ohio, near Cleveland, “the Paris of Northeastern Ohio,” or his friendship with Marvin Shapiro, a college buddy whose death in combat left a mark on Mr. Gold’s heart. I wish I had space to tell about his long, on-again, off-again relationship with Saul Bellow, the gifted but prickly, self-obsessed, Nobel-Prize-winning novelist, recounted in a chapter that explores the mysteries of friendship, talent and genius. But I (happily) leave those pleasures to readers who enjoy reading good sentences as well as good books.

William F. Gavin is a novelist living in Northern Virginia.

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