This week I’m looking at books that I think are worth rereading – and that I’ve reread more than once. These stand up to my tests, and I’ll try to articulate what it is I like about them. If any of them intrigue you, I hope you’ll give them a shot. I envy you the first-time experience.
I once saw a program on forensic science that showed a six-foot tall granite wheel, perfectly shaped, perfectly balanced, and perfectly placed so that each revolution sliced a tissue sample thin enough to put on a microscope slide. At his best, Joseph Heller is like that wheel, as carved by Dali. His stories revolve easily on the axle of a single weighty incident, but in mad loops and twirls that randomly, inexorably peel thin layers until he lays bare an awful truth.
Heller is best known for his signature work, Catch-22 (which is probably #1 on my “most reread” list), but in my humble opinion he missed the unique voice and structure of that groundbreaking novel in his other books. Except for God Knows. A first-person omniscient narrator who is both deeply spiritual and worldly, details that are anachronistic yet incredibly accurate, and characters who defy every expectation combine to throw light on the biblical story of King David.
As everyone who ever went to Sunday School knows, David slew Goliath, played the harp and wrote Psalms, and became King. More advanced readers might know that he married Bathsheba under suspicious circumstances. Even more knowledgeable people might know that he was a rebel, was in turn rebelled against by his son Absalom, and survived palace intrigues over the succession to his throne. Heller incorporates all these stories, going to the books of Samuel, Chronicles, Psalms, and Kings to reconstruct the timeline of David’s life. Of course, being Joseph Heller, he develops that timeline in his own order, following themes and whims to convey David’s story.
David also has full knowledge of his future representation in art and literature – Michelangelo, Shakespeare, the controversy over his relationship with Jonathan – and mocks or defends himself against those interpretations. Heller’s dark humor suffuses the story, but it’s filtered through a layer of tragedy and self-pity, even as Yossarian’s was.
I reread this for Heller’s sympathetic but unyielding portrait of “a man after God’s own heart” whose very humanity loses him the relationship he wants the most. His secondary characters – the nearly idiotic Solomon, the menopausal Bathsheba, David’s vain sons, and the half-mad Saul – are caricatures, but memorable in their own right. Most of all, I read this for the devastating impact of the last line, which is the effective climax of the story. Don’t read that last line first – savor the experience of Heller’s incredible writing and David’s violent and tragic life.
Check the WRL catalog for God Knows