Joe Gould's Secret

by Joseph Mitchell

Modern Library, $13.50 hard Sometimes, beauty lies in the back issues.

Such is the case with a pair of character pieces, originally published in The New Yorker in 1944 and '64 respectively -- the latter bearing this slim volume's title -- written by long- time contributor to the noted weekly, Joseph Mitchell.

In the early 1940s, Mitchell became interested in a veteran Greenwich Village lay- about; a panhandling, homeless, highly eccentric "historian" by the name of Joe Gould. A graduate of Harvard (magna cum difficultate, class of 1911) and lone heir to a lineage dating back to Colonial New England, Gould had chucked it all in 1916 for a life on the streets -- cadging drinks, hustling "contributions" for his ubiquitous "Joe Gould Fund," and utilizing his extensive free time in pursuit of a literary project he referred to as An Oral History of Our Time.

This tome, Gould claimed, was 11 times longer than the Bible; a compendium of family history, gossip, eavesdropped conversations and general miscellany inscribed entirely in longhand on dimestore composition pads and stored away in a basement on Long Island -- active drafts, like The Death of Dr. Clarke Storer Gould, a chapter of Joe Gould's Oral History, cached away in benefactor's apartments. Fascinated, Mitchell befriended Gould and for the next dozen or so years "wined," dined, and generally endured his subject's myriad caprices and shenanigans in an attempt to actually view the legendary history, which its author prophesied "...in time to come, people may read Gould's oral history to see what went wrong with us, the way people read Gibbon's Decline and Fall to see what went wrong with the Romans."

Known variously as "The Professor,'' "Bellevue Boy," and "Sea Gulls," this due to his penchant for cross- translating, and publically practicing "Seagullese" ("Longfellow translates perfectly in sea gull," Gould once remarked. "On the whole... I think he sounds better in sea gull than he does in English."), Gould caught the wave of "bohemians" converging on the Village in the wake of WW I -- like kids flooding the Haight in the Sixties -- functioning, for a time, among the peripheral literati, actually influencing author and playwright William Saroyan with his typically disjointed essay, "Civilization," in the April 1929 issue of The Dial ("It freed me from bothering about form," Saroyan later mused."). In fact, Gould is credited by some historians as having coined the term "oral history," though the jury's still cloistered as to Studs Turkel's acquiescence on the subject. It almost goes without saying that e.e. cummings and Malcolm Cowley were something of fans as well. But literature traditionally disappoints, and Gould soon retreated into exclusive research for his epic, which, naturally, included regular solicitation of drinks and "funding." His became a hand- to- mouth existence, at best.

After finishing the first piece, Professor Sea Gull, I realized I knew Gould -- not the man, but most certainly the type. I worked in an infamous "all-nite" eatery near Manhattan's Bowery Mission in the early 1980s, and had subsequently honed my urban disdain of panhandlers to a fine edge. One morning, just before shift change, this character shows up at the counter -- looked about 70, filthy, bearded, cast- off too- big clothing, upright, old ladies' shopping cart crammed with whatever passed for his worldly belongings in tow behind him, the air around him yellowing instantly as if he were projecting a visible aura.

I sauntered over lazily, my whole approach timed like I was about to swat an exceptionally fat, lazy fly. The guy looked up at me with watery, rheumy eyes. "Howza 'bout stakin' a old sojer to a cuppa joe an' a- piece- a- pie." It wasn't a question.

"Get the hell outta here," I snapped, sweeping a bar towel past him on the counter.

His response was immediate. "Why you little sonuvabitch," he rasped, rising up on the balls of his feet to 5'6" or so, "I built this town [when] you were still a lump in yer daddy's underwear."

I ejected him, with no small amount of
consternation, and promptly forget the matter. It's only now I realize the guy was probably one of the last of a breed -- a breed making the likes of Austin's dragworms look like a pack of pussies. My casual impudence could well have been the final slap in the face to an odd, aging old warrior; destined to die alone, drunk -- if the elements, crack-heads, or lunatics didn't get him first. I felt ashamed.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of the second piece, Joe Gould's Secret, is said sense of shame lasts, maybe, 20 pages. By then, only the most distracted of readers will not have discerned Gould's "secret," except the attitude of both author and audience at this juncture has become one of "Who cares?"

Operating as a kind of synthesizer of influences and traditions -- Somerset Maugham, Damon Runyon, O. Henry, Henry James, and Guy de Maupassant, with John Updike bringing up the rear (see A Critic at Large; Lana Turner, The New Yorker, 2/12/96), Mitchell, with a stripped-down style not totally devoid of emotional attachment and as capable of epiphanies as contemporary writers Martin Chabon and -- choke -- Jay McInerney, all the while discretely adhering to technique with an almost Carveresque resignation, manages to transform what is essentially a glorified shaggy-dog story into a fable of nobility against all odds. Nobility, granted, in the most abstract of milieus, but nobility nonetheless.

With a sympathetic yet sardonic eye, the author views Gould without illusions, with a fine enough lens as to render Saroyan's raves as those of an untenured, Grade Z, State U. dilettante. Indeed, it's when Mitchell totally removes his narrator's rose-colored glasses and tosses them out the window, becoming involved, personally, irrevocably, that the work begins to attain... well... mythic status.

Gone is the clown asking for a free piece of pie, the nutcase begging drinks in exchange for noisy harangues in sea gull, the trashed-out little bum peeing in your backyard. Mitchell instead paints him, in his funny, loony-bird way, as a real hero:

"I suddenly felt a surge of genuine respect for Gould. He had declined to stay in Norwood and live out his life as Pee Wee Gould, the town fool. If he had to play the fool, he would do it on a larger stage, before a friendlier audience, he had come to Greenwich Village and had found a mask for himself, and he put it on and kept it on."

Here, Mitchell ventures, emotionally at any rate, into the oxymoronic world of cynicism and romanticism where someone of Raymond Chandler's ilk lies in wait.

But the visit is fleeting as Gould and Mitchell attempt to skate around one another on a sort of ethical ice patch. And when the sun finally appears, the ice melting away to make further skating impossible, the author is confronted with the kind of dilemma Chandler cherished.

Mitchell's solution, however, bears little resemblance to Marlowe's walk away from Terry Lennox in The Long Goodbye. The author instead opts for the same choice foisted upon John Wayne in John Ford's Fort Apache: that of a perpetrator of myth -- not one constructed of the foibles falling together to constitute the myth, but rather as a torch-bearer of a distinctly shallow flame: a lop-sided admiration based less on achievement than sheer tenacity.

Joe Gould's Secret should go down as one of those nifty, highly personal discoveries, like Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It, one feels privileged to have caught before the narrator finally bows out. The book represents the apex of a mid-century observational literary style the current generation's crop of "new" writers ought to consider, seriously, for further perusal.

-- Tom Aiken

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