Page 154 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 43

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
misguided French king in Mel Brooks’ 1981 film,
History o f the
World Part I.
The distinction is crucial, for despite superficial similarities be­
tween Heller and Brooks there is a world of difference between
the two. Not the least of these differences is that, for Heller’s
King David, it is definitely not “good to be the king.”
As the novel opens, David has been King of Israel for forty
years. He is troubled by the dilemma of his succession: Shall it be
Adonijah, the next in line (after the deaths of Amnon and
Absalom), or Solomon, the son of David’s favorite wife Bath-
sheba? This man, whose libido was matched only by the strength
of his political ambition, is now old and cold. He is grateful to
Abishag the Shunnamite, who shares the bed of his waning years,
but his passion cannot be aroused. He is a powerless Lear. He
reminisces about his military triumphs, his amorous adventures,
his relationships with Saul and Jonathan, and the rebellion of his
beloved son Absalom. He cannot get over the deaths of so many
of his children, including not only Absalom but also the nameless
little boy, born of his illicit liaison with Bathsheba, who was taken
from him by God as a punishment for his own sins. The meaning
of David’s anguish over his kingly and therefore human condi­
tion is one of the subjects of this essay.
Leon Wieseltier, writing in
The New Republic2
asserts that “Jo ­
seph Heller’s new novel will inevitably be compared. . . to Mel
Brooks.” In Wieseltier’sjudgment, however, “it does not deserve
the compliment.” Certainly there are similarities between the
two. Both seek to rew rite h istory . Both a re ir re v e re n t ,
blasphemous, and laden with vulgar language. King David, in
places, bears many similarities to Brooks’ 2,000-year-old-man.
But one can be misled by these apparent similarities. Even Hell­
er’s facile jokes have a bite of morbid irony that distance him
from his hilarious counterpart. There is an underlying serious­
ness to Heller’s brand of humor. The particularistic humor is a
pretext for the statement of a serious esthetic principle.
One of the running jokes of the novel is David’s attempt to turn
away any suggestion that his relationship with Jonathan — whose
2 Leon Wieseltier. “Schlock of Recognition.”
The New Republic,
October 29,
1984, pp. 31-33. Almost grudgingly, Wieseltier recognizes a sort of “cultural
perfection”to
God Knows;
he concedes to Heller “an unerring ear for the Eng­
lish diction o f American Jews in the middle o f the twentieth century”and even
calls
God Knows
a “masterpiece,” albeit of the schlock of recognition.