Monday, October 08, 2007

"Joe Gould's Secret" - Joseph Mitchell

"Joe Gould's Secret" is made of two different articles, both published in The New Yorker about a down-and-out poet and would be historian, resident bohemian at several Greenwich Village diners and bars, Joseph Ferdinand Gould.

The first, shorter piece is dated 1942. Joseph Mitchell was writing profiles of New Yorkers with an eye toward the excentric and unusual and Gould seemed a natural fit. He had been traipsing around the Village for years, much of the time drunk, gathering an informal circle of friends (and some enemies) among the more famous poets and artists of the neighborhood, whose hand-outs kept him just one step ahead of homelessness and hunger.

The interesting bit of curio about Gould was his monumental work in progress: a massive Oral History (of the world) in which the conversations of everyday people (and some famous ones) where noted down in grammar school writing pads.

"Professor Seagull" is funny and tragic, but it is the second, lengthier "Joe Gould's Secret" written twenty-two years after, that brings Gould and Mitchell's characters into focus while allowing a very rare glimpse into the backstage of journalism. It is here that we learn what happened after, the way that life muddied the carefully written words of the author.

Gould became a frequent and with the months passing, unwelcome, visitor of Mitchell's office almost every week. His verbosity would not be stopped and the journalist, ever the southern gentleman, becomes an unwitting confidant of every detail of Joe Gould's life story.

For, putting the ambition of his Oral History aside (of which Mitchell never saw a single page during the first assignment), it is his own life that seems to capture Gould's every waking thought: the son of a wealthy and puritan New England family, he was unable to fulfill his father's expectations but, though he left home at a young age, never solved his heartbreaking relationship with his parents.

The reader sharply feels Mitchell's discomfort of being inconvenienced by the mostly drunk, repetitive Gould to the point that he tries, quite frantically, to get a publisher interested in the Oral History, seeing it as the only means of getting the old man off his back.

It is Mitchell's stepping forward in "Joe Gould's Secret" that makes this book such a treasure: we witness his southern traits of politeness, loyalty and honour as they shape this remarkably honest chronicle of what came after the final period. The reader empathizes with his frustration, suspicion, anger and finally the respect he develops toward the tragic Gould.

If the Oral History is but a figment of Gould's alcoholic and mentally ill mind, is it less remarkable just because he failed to put the words on paper? Is the absolute truth the most ethical course of action where dignity and respect are concerned? These are the questions Mitchell grappled with for decades before setting down to write "Joe Gould's Secret" - his answer is to look the reader straight in the eye and tell a sad story that is not only a beautiful epitaph to his subject, but also a testament of undying admiration to the city of New York, its fools and holymen.

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