God Knows, by Joseph Heller

December 7, 2011 at 18:50 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Romantic Fiction) (, , , , )


Joseph Heller is one of the finest writers of the last century, and it is almost certain that he would enjoy a vastly higher reputation, had he but written a few more books. He enters historical fiction in the same cavalier way that he approaches the subject of war in Catch-22; with a brash and arrogant disdain for either the facts of the matter, or indeed the details. David converses as readily about Agamemnon, Shakespeare and the United States as he does the Philistines and the Exodus. The utter glee with which Heller plunges into these anachronisms is thrilling to behold, and the brazen confidence he shows is offset only by the amazing success he has in making it all work.

Heller’s David is very much like the young men in Catch-22, and would not appear out of place in the 256th Squadron. He is blasé and world-weary, snide and sarcastic, insightful and bitter, wise and yet a buffoon, and utterly obsessed with sex. At first it seems that Heller is simply snarling at God through the character’s mouth, and scrawling over a biblical character in angry crayon. For the first several chapters, that is all this book is, and all that it offers. Later on, Heller himself gets a little bogged down with the sheer amount of history, and some of the chapters end up as rather desperate paraphrases of the Bible, without much elaboration on his part. But in between these two extremes, there is a great deal of thinking going on. A great deal of sadness and introspection, and a great deal of despair and desperation. “The danger in being a king is that after a while you begin to think you really are one,” he soliloquises, in one of the more poignant reflections on the shabbiness of his life. Or his character’s life.

“God knows what I mean. I feel nearer to God when I am deepest in anguish. That’s when I know He is closing in again, and I yearn to call out to Him now what I have longed to say to Him before, to address my Almighty God with those words of Ahab to Elijah in the vineyard of Naboth, ‘Hast thou found me, O mine enemy?'”

-God Knows

And that is one of the more noticeable things here. Such is Heller’s genius that it is very difficult to know when he is being honest. It is very easy to wonder if he is laughing up his sleeve at David’s existential crises; if he is snorting dismissively at David’s lustful fantasies, or sharing them; if he shares David’s odd and fascinating mixture of furious pride and desperate entreaty to God, or if he is utterly detached from it. Behind the gratuitous and filthy language, the sardonic and trenchant humour and the near-nihilistic monologues, there are moments of real profundity. Joseph Heller might not know what God is, but he knows with a startling clarity what man is, and his portrait of the human arrogance and tragedy is picture perfect. It is very possible that in the moments of quiet and thoughtful introspection Heller is laughing up his sleeve. But if he is, then his sleeve has some genuine thoughtfulness and pain in it, and he lays it all out on the pages of his book with the masterful and genius talent that is his trademark.


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