A novel as­so­ci­a­tion

He may brush off Beat as­ser­tions, but fic­tion mas­ter Her­bert Gold went to school with Gins­berg, fa­mously crit­i­cized Ker­ouac and has lived in a San Fran­cisco ‘Beat­nik pad’ for 56 years


TThe 93-year-old nov­el­ist is calmly ar­gu­ing for the cre­ative ad­van­tages of hate. For the last sev­eral years, Her­bert Gold sought re­venge the old-fash­ioned way: with­er­ing lam­poon and lit­er­ary slan­der. His most re­cent novel, “When a Psy­chopath Falls in Love,” slips a fic­tional tint on his au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal tale of get­ting ripped off by a low-rent Bernie Madoff.

“I had a crooked lawyer friend who stole a lot of money from me, which in­spired some writ­ing,” Gold says from the rent-con­trolled gar­ri­son atop Rus­sian Hill that he has sur­veyed for the past 56 years.

“My el­dest daugh­ter, a psy­chol­o­gist, said, ‘Dad, it’s not good for you to hate.’ I said, ‘It’s very good for me to hate.’ I’ve drawn that ha­tred into the book.”

Whether em­ployed by Voltaire or Ice Cube, acidic fury has been flipped into artis­tic ret­ri­bu­tion for cen­turies. Some make mil­lions promis­ing that a cease­less dharma of pos­i­tiv­ity en­sures longevity, but the San Fran­cisco writer re­minds you that no one re­ally knows any­thing. Un­bri­dled op­ti­mists can die at 34, or caus­tic skep­tics can be­come Methuse­lah.

Gold would be the first to tell you that’s he’s not a Beat, but his legacy and his­tor­i­cal con­text re­main in­ex­tri­ca­ble from his more well-branded peers. The au­thor of 30-plus nov­els, nonfiction tomes and short-story col­lec­tions jokes that this is his “Beat­nik pad.”

Shortly af­ter I ar­rive, Gold pulls out a re­print of an old Columbia Review, re­cently sent by Bill Mor­gan, archivist for Allen Gins­berg. Po­ems by the Lake­wood, Ohio, na­tive run along­side early salvos from the fu­ture au­thor of “Howl,” then the 18-year-old as­so­ciate edi­tor of their col­lege lit­er­ary mag­a­zine.

“[Gins­berg] was a cou­ple years younger than I was, and openly gay, although we didn’t use that word at the time,” Gold says, seven decades later, in this apart­ment that in­ad­ver- tently dou­bles as a lit­er­ary taber­na­cle.

Framed photos of Gold’s five chil­dren are jux­ta­posed next to black-and-white poses with Ge­orge Plimp­ton and Wil­liam Saroyan. De­grees hang from Columbia (in­clud­ing a mas­ter’s in phi­los­o­phy) and the Sor­bonne, where he was a Ful­bright Scholar. A psy­che­delic voodoo can­vas adorns one wall, a gift from a Haitian weed grower — one of many friends made dur­ing myr­iad trips to the is­land that cul­mi­nated in Gold’s bril­liant 1991 trav­el­ogue and cul­tural his­tory, “Best Night­mare on Earth: A Life in Haiti.”

“We’d go to bars near Columbia and Allen lec­tured me on Saint Teresa, whom he loved. Jack Ker­ouac, whom he loved,” Gold con­tin­ues. “He’d al­ways ask why I didn’t try ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. How would I know if I didn’t like it?”

Gold was the least tol­er­ant to­ward Ker­ouac, which led to oc­ca­sional ac­ri­mony be­tween him and Gins­berg.

“I crossed the street to avoid [Ker­ouac],” Gold says. Un­der­neath spec­ta­cles, his soft brown eyes tem­po­rar­ily be­come mar­ble. “He was an ar­ro­gant, anti-Semitic bully.”

Upon the pub­li­ca­tion of “On the Road,” Gold fa­mously sniped at his for­mer class­mates in the Na­tion. It caused a brief rift with Gins­berg and per­ma­nent rup­ture with Ker­ouac.

“Gins­berg and Ker­ouac are fran­tic. They care too much, and they care aloud. I’m hun­gry, I’m starv­ing, let’s eat right now,” the 34-year old Gold wrote in 1957. “That they care mostly for them­selves is a sign of ado­les­cence, but at least they care for some­thing, and it’s a be­gin­ning.”

The crit­i­cism aligned him with Tru­man Capote — who in­veighed of Ker­ouac, “it’s not writ­ing, it’s typ­ing” — and John Updike, whose par­ody “On the Side­walk” ap­peared in the New Yorker. Many Beat con­tem­po­raries at­trib­uted Gold’s dis­missals to jeal­ousy, but it stemmed more from fun­da­men­tal di­ver­gences in style and thought. If most Beats slanted to­ward squint­ing mys­ti­cism, Gold was a sar­cas­tic re­al­ist, quick to car­i­ca­ture the ex­cess and oc­ca­sion­ally ju­ve­nile philoso­phies.

“Ker­ouac de­stroyed him­self with al­co­hol by 47. Like James Dean, he looks great sten­ciled on T-shirts,” Gold says. “Gins­berg in­spired peo­ple to work. Ker­ouac in­spired a speed-rap style that came out of tak­ing speed. Although I have to ad­mit now that the im­age he pro­jected of camping out and cook­ing Jell-O over a fire could be ap­peal­ing to a young per­son.”

There was also the mat­ter of the com­pany he

kept. Dur­ing Gold’s Paris so­journ, Saul Bel­low be­came an early men­tor and life­long ally. So was James Bald­win. Vladimir Nabokov con­sid­ered Gold one of the finest Amer­i­can writ­ers, se­lect­ing his short “Death in Miami Beach” as one of six “A-list” per­sonal fa­vorites (along­side J.D. Salinger, Updike and John Cheever). Fol­low­ing the suc­cess of “Lolita,” Nabokov hand-picked Gold as his teach­ing heir at Cor­nell.

“You must haff one mar­tini but no more,” Gold re­calls Nabokov coach­ing him through the in­ter­view process. A decade later, Gold con­ducted the famed Paris Review “Art of Fic­tion” in­ter­view with the eru­dite Rus­sian ex­pa­tri­ate.

It un­der­scores a ques­tion at the core of lit­er­ary pos­ter­ity. Would you rather live a dole­ful, ab­bre­vi­ated and tor­mented life like Ker­ouac in ex­change for the immortality that only pop­ulist suc­cess can of­fer? Or would you rather live more than nine decades, cel­e­brated by the great­est au­thors, raise five chil­dren whom you deeply love and leave be­hind an in­deli­ble but over­looked body of work?

As usual, the an­swer is more com­pli­cated than sim­ple bi­na­ries al­low. In the late ’60s, Gold’s novel-in-the-form-of-a-mem­oir, “Fa­thers,” af­forded him the Luce mag­a­zine fea­tures and com­mer­cial re­wards that had largely eluded him to that point. He sold more than 100,000 copies, ap­peared on the New York Times best­seller list and be­came a lit­er­ary celebrity at a time when the phrase wasn’t an oxy­moron.

Nor has his life been bereft of tragedy. In 1991, his ex-wife, Melissa Gold, was killed in a he­li­copter crash along­side her boyfriend, the leg­endary con­cert pro­moter Bill Gra­ham. Much of Gold’s sub­se­quent writ­ing has been haunted by her mem­ory, most no­tably his poignant med­i­ta­tion on mem­ory and aging, “Still Alive! A Tem­po­rary Con­di­tion.”

But should you spend any sig­nif­i­cant amount of time with Gold in this ci­tadel over­look­ing the sail­boats of San Fran­cisco Bay, or walk­ing up and down the seven hills, there’s no ques­tion which op­tion you’d se­lect. De­spite break­ing a hip a few months prior, he asks if I want to get din­ner at his fa­vorite old-school San Fran­cisco Can­tonese restau­rant, Sun Kwong. The steep grade of the con­crete high­lands could leave any man winded, but Gold shows lit­tle strain.

“My stamina isn’t all the way back,” he ad­mits, paus­ing only to of­fer a tour of old habitués priced into obliv­ion: a neigh­bor­hood cof­fee shop so re­cently shut­tered that its win­dows are cov­ered with farewell let­ters from be­reaved cus­tomers, a sculp­tor’s stu­dio that now of­fers high colonics.

“If I moved, they could get $6,000 a month,” Gold muses, enu­mer­at­ing a fig­ure roughly 10 times his cur­rent rent. “I told the land­lord that they’ll have to carry me out in a stretcher.”

In the quar­ter-mile stroll to the Chi­nese restau­rant, he jokes with prac­ti­cally ev­ery neigh­bor­hood char­ac­ter that passes — some known, some not. It strikes you with a Mid­west­ern ge­nial­ity, maybe car­ried over from his boy­hood in subur­ban Cleve­land. A few weeks ear­lier, the li­brary in his home town feted him with a trib­ute night, com­plete with book­marks and posters on the walls.

“As you get older, nos­tal­gia be­comes a prob­lem,” he says as soon as we sit down at the restau­rant, with its weak Oo­long tea and heap­ing plat­ters of fried food. It just got fresh menus, but the place feels per­ma­nently faded. “You start to think, ‘Oh, things were bet­ter back in my day. You should’ve been here in North Beach then.’ But it’s won­der­ful to be alive at 20 in any era.”

Gold ac­crued sto­ries so sin­gu­lar that they defy mod­ern ana­logue. Many are rec­ol­lected in his 1993 mem­oir, “Bo­hemia,” which in­ad­ver­tently plays out like an an­tecedent to Woody Allen’s “Mid­night in Paris.” There’s the time he mis­tak­enly brought a woman to Wil­liam S. Burroughs’s Latin Quar­ter apart­ment, which drove the junkie au­thor to shock her by uri­nat­ing in the sink as he prepped the din­ner salad. He nearly fought Nor­man Mailer on a bal­cony at Plimp­ton’s house. Jean Genet failed to se­duce him. Anais Nin maybe made a pass. It was Herb Gold who ac­tu­ally brought Tom Wolfe to what he wrote about as “The Elec­tric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” a fa­vor that went un­re­turned when Wolfe de­scribed him as hav­ing an “af­ter­shave smile.”

It may have been in­tended as a mild pe­jo­ra­tive, but that de­scrip­tion cap­tures the in­nate com­plex­ity of an artist worth re­mem­ber­ing. When he needed his charm to open doors, it un­locked them. But there’s some­thing in­valu­able in Gold’s re­fusal to buy into pre­vail­ing fads, trends or lit­er­ary move­ments. Maybe the skep­ti­cism was oc­ca­sion­ally un­founded, but he was a writer who kept other writ­ers hon­est.

“The great thing about writ­ing is that you mas­ter your ex­pe­ri­ence and are able to con­trol it in some way,” Gold says. His vi­sion of the fu­ture is unusu­ally even-keeled: nei­ther sum­mar­ily bleak nor san­guine or up­beat. He sees the novel ul­ti­mately be­com­ing a niche in­ter­est. When I ask why, he points to my phone.

“Maybe it was bet­ter for writ­ers in the ’60s and ’70s,” Gold adds. “But there’s ex­cite­ment ev­ery­where; you just have to look for it.”

If there is a se­cret, per­haps this is it — find the sil­ver lin­ing amid the scrap heap. But Gold fore­goes such for­tune-cookie pro­fun­di­ties. He’s the type of au­thor to of­fer mean­ing in mi­nor ges­tures: one more meal at the Chi­nese restau­rant, the ig­nored joy of an­other in­hale, the abil­ity to con­tinue walk­ing these hills.



TOP: Nov­el­ist Her­bert Gold, a con­tem­po­rary of the Beats, at his home of­fice in 2008. Gold would be the first to tell you that’s he’s not a Beat, but his legacy and his­tor­i­cal con­text re­main in­ex­tri­ca­ble from his more well-branded peers. ABOVE: A pub­lic­ity por­trait of Gold from around the time his 1959 novel “The Op­ti­mist” was pub­lished. He has writ­ten more than 30 of them.


Nov­el­ist Her­bert Gold takes a stroll up Com­mer­cial Street to­ward San Fran­cisco’s Chi­na­town in 2000. He lives in a rent-con­trolled gar­ri­son atop the city’s Rus­sian Hill.


Gold, top cen­ter, with his chil­dren and grand­chil­dren in 2011. Now 93, he still is at work.

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