God Knows is a book written by Joseph Heller, first published in 1984.

NB This writeup does contain plot elements, but they're only spoilers if you've never read the Bible. Knowing what's going to happen doesn't damage the book in this case.

"My children are waiting for me to die. Who can blame them? I've led a full, long life, haven't I? You can look it up, Samuel I and II. Chronicles also, but that's a prissy white-wash in which the juiciest parts of my life are discarded as unimportant or unworthy. Therefore I hate Chronicles. In Chronicles I am a pious bore, as dull as dishwater and as preachy and insipid as that self-righteous Joan of Arc, and God knows I was never anything like that. God knows I fucked and fought plenty, and had a rousing time doing both until the time I fell in love and the baby died. Everything took a turn for the worse after that. "

This is the story of David. The David. David the King. Joseph Heller style. The temptation would be to describe it as Catch-22 meets the book of Samuel, however that would be too much of a cliche. Which is a shame, because it's a pretty good description.

Samuel is one of the few books in the Bible that makes really good drama read as is. The characters are so believable and human that they put modern biographers to shame. If you haven't read it, it's totally worth it. Catch-22 is a gorgeous piece which makes fun with time and causality while still hanging together. Read that too, even though it's much harder. God Knows is both of these.

David is the narrator, and tells us his story. He is the David of 1 Kings 1, elderly, bed-bound and being tended to by the physically perfect Abishag the Shunnamite. He rambles, as old men are prone to, and tells us of his past glories, his regrets and mistakes, his love and religion.

Except that he seems to forget about time and anachronism. He talks about the Renaissance and modern day America, compares the various statues of himself in Italy (he thinks they make him look gay) and discusses invading Russia. He uses Yiddish expressions much as a Brooklyn-born Jewish grandfather might today, and complains that there isn't a book in the Bible named after him.

So the story of 1 Kings 1 takes place in the background, while David retells Saul's rise and fall, his times with Goliath and the harp, his life as a general and outlaw, his time as king of Judah and of the united kingdoms, his sex with Bathsheba, his dead baby, and his war with his son.

And David's sheer humanity comes through in this tale. He is desperate for a father-figure in his life but has always been let down. He is a fanatically devoted father himself, well past the point of fault. He is vain, rash, rude and sometimes downright immoral, but he is thoroughly likable, even when he's sending Uriah to his death in order to steal his wife.

It is not, in the final analysis, a happy tale. Gradually, the reader begins to see that our narrator is not really engaging in boasting or engaging in a gentle stroll down memory lane. The whole tale is an apologia, an excuse, a justification of his quite serious failings and his refusal to resolve the succession.

Heller perhaps has the most fun in his portrayal of other characters in the story. Saul is paranoid and delusional, Samuel is self-important and grouchy, Bathsheba is single-mindedly ambitious and Joab is like a cross between Alistair Campbell and a psychopath. All of these are justified in the plain reading of the Bible. Most amusing though, and a bit unfair, is Heller's presentation of Solomon as a total moron, incapable of understanding the simplest ideas.

'God Knows' is not as difficult a work as Catch-22. It's more accessible, though its humour is more esoteric; it contains a lot of in-jokes on Jewish traditions and the biblical text. It's well worth a read.

A word of caution to the potential reader: Like many other books (such as A Clockwork Orange), there are two versions of God Knows. The US edition seems to have an epilogue which is omitted in the UK edition. I don't know which is the original version, but in any case the version without the epilogue is vastly superior, and I recommend anyone who buys this book to rip out those last two or three pages. You may be less satisfied, but it'll be worth it.

UK edition (without epilogue) ISBN 0-552-99169-4
Above quote from chapter one of that edition (C)Scapegoat Productions, Inc. CST Approved

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