EIGHTEEN YEARS, world fame and many millions of dollars fill the time between now and 1961, when Mel Brooks and Joseph Heller first met at Fire Island, New York City's beach playground. Brooks has risen from comic to auteur -- producer, director, writer and/or star of the films The Producers, The Twelve Chairs, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie and High Anxiety . He is currently running the show on a movie entitled Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part I . Heller has stuck to the printed word, with one excursion into theater, a play, We Bombed in New Haven . The title of his first novel, Catch -22, entered the American language; his second, Something Happened , topped the best-seller charts for many weeks. His latest novel, Good as Gold , now in bookstore windows, is the work referred to below as "this book" or "the book."
Old friends Brooks and Heller have assembled in Brooks' sunny corner office on the third floor of the Executive Office Building at 20th-Century Fox, overlooking the famous Hello, Dolly set. The view, which combines turn-of-the-century Yonkers and the Krazy Kat date palms of southern California, is as surrealistic as anything you'll see in Hollywood. Inside, the rays of sunshine dance on the posters in many languages for Brooks' films. The room is dominated by a black-and-white portrait of Leo Tolstoy on one wall, and a handprinted, almost scrawled, detailed story-board of the French Revolution scenes from History of the World on another. Brooks is a small, neat-bodied man with a high metabolism; he is wearing a Lacoste shirt and sneakers. Heller is... ah... less fit than he once was, but his smile is still a grin and his thick head of white curly hair frames a youthful, cherubic face. Both were raised in Brooklyn, neighborhoods apart. Let's listen:
MB: I rate this somewhere between The Brothers Karamazov and those little dirty books we used to read... you know, Popeye with an erection.
JH: That's a very narrow range.
MB: Right. That's where this book falls, with those little 8-pagers, remember? In all fairness to you, Joe, it's closer to Karamazov .
JH: It just shows how an artist's intentions often miscarry in spite of himself.
MB: Let's be semi-serious for awhile, because I had to read the book for the interview. It's a big fat book and worth the money. It took me less than a weekend to read such a big fat book. It's very compelling, and yet a very strange book, because it has an utter reality, and yet it has a true madness... a little like Studs Lonigan and Alice in Wonderland , all mished arein [mixed together].
JH: There's one point you missed.
MB: Wait a minute and I'll cover it.
JH: That's the point you're missing. Nobody's interested in what you think. You're here to interview me!
MB: I've been asked to ask you questions, as a profound West Coast intellectual. There's only three of us. I'm gonna tell you what I think, whether you want or not, so listen. I was amazed how easily the story was pushed along by the characters. There is no story. [Heller begins to rise up menacingly from his chair.] Well, there is and there isn't. It's the story of a family -- the meanderings of a family member -- and heartbreaking funny reality with the the Jewish family, and there is an insanity in Washington....
JH: Is there any way on earth to induce you to ask a question?
MB: Why did Sid have to die? [Sid is Bruce Gold's older brother in Good as Gold .] You killed him. You could'a let him live.
JH: Sure. But then I'd have no book.
MB: You could'a killed the father, that sonofabitch bastard.
JH: Everyone expected the father to die.
MB: We hate and love that man.
JH: Ooohh, you felt that little tug at the heart in the end, right?
JH: That's not merely art, that's Machiavellian genius.
MB: I'm supposed to say that. You can't say 'Machiavellian genius' about yourself, schmuck. It looks terrible. Ralph Newsome (the presidential aide in Good as Gold ) is Gracie Allen. It's incredible. You have re-created Burns and Allen, every time he talks. He has a penchant for turning the most simple things into insanity. So a lot of what I loved in Catch-22 has been shifted to Washington. It's the same examination of the prevailing insanity. So we are not in an airfield in Italy, we are in Washington, and we have a lot of very crazy people. I also loved the character of Andrea's father. He...
JH: Since you ask me the question, I'm compelled to answer. Pugh Biddle Conover. He began in my mind as an incarnate villain. All kinds of bigotry and snobbishness and feelings of cold superiority are embodied in him.
And yet, as I wrote him I began to like him more and more because there was a certain purity in his malevolence. He is articulate, he reads Gold's mind thoroughly in all his anti-Semitism, he sees through Gold's head as though it were made of cellophane. Above all, because he proved very easy to like. So when I was writing those two chapters of Biddle Conover, I loved him. Not because he's good, not because he's benevolent, but because he was good in the book.
MB: And he's incredibly free. Because any time he wants to make a crazy rhyme, he rhymes a truism that's not true.
JH: Yes, I went back to my elementary school album for those rhymes. "2 Eyes UR, 2 Eyes UB, ICUR 2 Eyes 4 Me." Or "Learn this, my boy, before you grow old, that learning is better than silver or gold." Pugh Biddle Conover is one of my favorite characters in the book, and Ralph Newsome is Burns and Allen combined. He always tells the truth, very much like Milo Minderbinder in Catch-22 .
MB: The writing in this book reminds me of some of the writing in George Bernard Shaw, because he never made bad villains. He always made compassionate villains. Who was the father... the munitions maker... what play are we talking about?
JH: Major Barbara ?
MB: Major Barbara . The munitions manufacturer who is an ostensible evil turns out to be quite a compelling and understandable character. The bishop, who wants to kill St. Joan. Every time the bishop talked, I said: "F -- k it, kill her. He's right. Burn her; put her to the torch. The man is protecting an institution." And every time Joan spoke, I said: "Kill him." I read your book, and I said: "Aaaahhh, here's the enemy. The anti-Semite, the descendant of money..." and he turns out to be a compelling and exciting, lovable crazy character, with his honking.
I look at books in terms of movies and if we had to cut the book down, we would keep every word he has and every movement... the honking, the wheelchair.
JH: We'd certainly keep that buffet breakfast.
MB: Fabulous! To have 500 places set, and have one guy sitting there. All he took was a little honeydew....
MB: Wait a minute. You used another word I liked.
JH: A beaker of orange juice -- a trencher of melon from a trowel, or a trowel of mencher....
MB: Either way it works.
JH: And 17 cups of coffee.
MB: And one other little thing. There was -- it started with a "C".
MB: Cannikin. Some of the words are exquisite. In a movie, you eliminate the narrative and you lose, for a good writer. That's why they never made a good version of War and Peace , because you just can't give up Tolstoy's description and comments.
JH: Can we talk about me and my novel?
MB: I'm putting you in very good company. Apart from Popeye, I think you're doing very well.
JH: I'm waiting for you to get to your favorite authors. Turgenev, Stendhal, Tolstoy you got already, Gogol.
MB: Gogol is my favorite author. I like Dickens. You like Dickens, too.
JH: I stole from Dickens with a great deal of confidence in this book.
MB: No, you didn't steal from Dickens. Now, about the title, Good as Gold ...
JH: I stole from Dickens more in this book than I would want you to know.
MB: I like details like Andrea's scraping her calluses, the sound of it.
JH: If you've ever been infatuated, even once for a while, with a goddess who made the mistake of scraping a callus off her foot in your presence, you'll know; you'll know how quickly love can die. I don't know my place....
MB: In the interview or in life?
JH: In the interview. In life I know my place. If you were a stranger, I'd be afraid of you, I'd be deferential, respectful to you. I would stammer when I spoke to you. I'm taking liberties, I'm exploiting our friendship and I apologize....
MB: You bastard. You always, even when we have our eating club, you always take the best pieces. You have no compunction. If there's a lobster claw, it's in your dish. Then you say: everybody now can serve themselves.
JH: You must have noticed in reading this book of mine that I took a number of the best pieces of conversations that we have participated in over the past 15 years.
MB: You even use the words "broke the soup" instead of "broke the bowl."
JH: But you want to know about my title?
MB: I want to know why you picked Gold . Gold to me has allegorical implications, but to you?
JH: When I started writing this book the character's name was Weinberg. I knew I was going to change it. One day, after three or four months of pondering, it occurred to me. Silver. Silver is a Jewish name, maybe there's a phrase containing silver. I couldn't think of a single one. Then Gold came to me. Pot of gold, good as gold.
When I got that title I was afraid for two years that somebody was going to come out with a television situation comedy called Good as Gold . It seemed like such a naturally good title that I don't know how they missed it.
MB: The fags of Washington, the gentiles on the Potomac, and the vermin of Coney Island -- you absolutely mix them. Sid -- Sid is a very important character, the brother. My father died when I was very little, so an older brother, the older brother, has incredible significance for me.
JH: I have now what's called a body of work. And people are doing what's called retrospective reviews, some from a literary viewpoint and some from a psychological point of view. One thing was pointed out to me which I did not know. In my three novels and one play -- in all four -- the climactic event is a death. and it's not the death of a major character but it's the death of somebody very close to him, a death that leaves the major character gasping in horror and trembling with relief that he has escaped it.
We know that death in drama is a very powerful thing. We also know that other events can serve as well.
MB: Saul Bellow, Mailer, Malamud -- no one could plant two strong feet in two completely different environments and examine them so completely as you did in this book. There is no way for Mailer to examine so Jewish an environment, no way for Malamud to examine so gentile an environment so skillfully.
The other foot of this three-footed animal is in the intellectual community, which is completely different from the poor Jews, and the crazy twodimensional Washington insane. The only novelist I know who is able to do it successfully is Dickens. You're the only one since Cickens who could handle both sides of that issue with blood.
JH: Maybe that's because that's what I want to do. Bellow can be funny; Malamud can be funny; Philip Roth can be very funny -- all three have massive minds and a great degree of education. On the other hand, I shy away from realism. I don't write a realistic book. I mean realism as a technique; I'm not talking about reality.
All my books have some kind of novel idea, some kind of literary conceit that remove them from what we think of as the literature of realisn, where the events are to be taken as literally having occurred.
MB: Is it true about $1,000 a day for those Washington people?
JH: I don't know but it might just as well be.
MB: Catch-22 is based on your adventures as a person in the Air Force in Italy....
JH: And as a survivor during the Cold War.
MB: Something Happened , when you talk about the library and the office and the file cabinets... you know too much.
JH: My first job after high school was as a file clerk for an automobile caualty insurance company.
MB: But, strangely, I think in this book you tell more about you than in both of them put together. There's more about your feelings and more about your real life. You don't fool around. Would Shirley and your children be upset if they feel Gold is you?
JH: Not after Something Happened . [They break up in laughter.]
MB: Very good. If they can live through that, they can live through anything.
JH: Oy , what we went through with that!
MB: All these chapter headings, they seem to come out of thoughts in the preceding chapter. A phrase is extruded from the last chapter and leads off the next chapter. How and why did that device appeal to you?
JH: Oy vey, guttenyu, mamenyu, tatenyu ... [A pained invocation of the deity and the ancestors]
MB: Oy vey is Jewish for the word Irving.
JH: I thought that one of the unifying structures for the novel would be to have -- ideally -- every section deal with something Gold was going to write or had written and use that as a title for that section or for the following section.
MB: But do they apply intrinsically?
JH: They don't. I feel the need for a break and I feel the need for a chapter heading. And I will confess something to you. The chapter headings in Catch-22 , about which many a scholarly piece has been written, were put on when the type was ready to be set and we decided we ought to have some kind of chapter heading, and for many of these chapters, particularly the first 30 or 40, there is nothing significant about the headings.
MB: I think that, for your picture on the jacket here, you should have been in a beautiful suit, professorial, and sitting on a pony. Instead of this handsome, devil-may-care person in an open shirt. You could be William Holden.
JH: William Holden never looked that good.
MB: There is one chapter title that does support the entire book -- "The Jewish Experience," the vapor that is coalesced throughout the entire book. This book could be called The Jewish Experience .
JH: What you said earlier about this book being my Jewish novel as contrasted with Malamud and Saul Bellow -- it's based on the fact that I've had no Jewish experience, other than what's in this novel.
MB: Jewish-American experience.
JH: Exactly. Those of us who were in World War II and came out of the war as very young men grew up aware that we were Jewish, but mine was largely a secular existence. Not much different from, say, somebody from a different part of the country who was not Jewish, but who'd been through the war and was either going to college or developing his talent and going to work.
My sister wrote me a long letter from Florida, about eight handwritten pages, about what it was like to look for a job when she got out of high school. When the ads said: No Jews Need Apply. And I used the letter verbatim in the chapter on the birthday party.
MB: In what specific way have you grown as an artist?
JH: My bank account.
MB: That's the measure of an artist, a bank account? Shame on you.
JH: It's an objective measure. How have you grown?
MB: I am taller than I was as a child. Whose style as a novelist do you admire the most?
JH: I love novelists who write in styles influenced by me.
MB: You care to name any of them?
JH: Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Moliere, Proust, Brooks... BROOKS!
MB: What about novelists writing today?
JH: Oh, sure. John Erlichman, Spiro Agnew, William Safire is a humdinger. There's a whole new school of fiction writing, and they're full of... vitality... and inspiration.
Seriously, I think that novels, because they don't cost as much to produce as films, permit a great variety of experimentation. In the last 10 or 20 years, American novelists alone have produced more in the way of innovation and inspiration than ever before in the history of literature. The novelists who interest me are those I call "the crazies." They're crazy, and they suffer. If they don't suffer, they take a great delight in writing about pain.
Using "crazy" in a very flattering way, meaning experimental and grotesque, I'd name Gogol, Kafka, Dostoevski. John Barth. Gilbert Sorrentino, who's completely unpredictable. Pynchon. I don't understand Pynchon, but I'd rather have plowed through Pynchon without understanding him than read a novel that might be superlative, perfect in every way, but in which there's nothing for me to grapple with, and from which there's nothing for me to learn.
MB: I liked The World According to Garp .
JH: So did I. John Irving is a very funny writer.
MB: He likes you too, by the way. When I think of you and your writing, a lot of people would compare you with an impressionist painter. Bulls - - t! Not for me. I know better, because I'm smarter than most people. If I were to liken you to any painter, I would make you Rousseau, the massive French primitive. You more than any other living writer I know are concerned with the honest details of life, the honest details of human thought, human behavior, human exchange.
The picture that we see is a little crazy. It looks like it's real, but if you examine it, there's an insane moon hanging there. In your art, you bridge what there should be and what there is, so that we're not flesh-bound, we're not earth-bound, we're not realismbound. You root your stuff in utter reality, but the final picture is very big, like Rousseau, and it's haunting. You are crazy, but in a very formal and traditional way.
JH: Also the ethical sense of my books is very conventional. Apart from a certain taste for salacious activities and licentiousness, the ethics in Good as Gold are quite conventional. What is being ridiculed, deplored, by me if not by my characters, is a moral corruption, a disavowal of responsibilities, a substitution of vanity, folly where other people's lives are concerned. Without my planning it, I do fall into a conventional narrative form in the last portions of both Catch-22 and Good as Gold . The events proceed chronologically, there are realities which can no longer be avoided, I can't f - - k around any longer, I must make my decision.
MB: The truth wins out. You don't bend it into something you want it to be in the end, that it can never be. You have only one incredible, tremendous fault.
JH: A full head of hair.
MB: No. You will never live unless you have a middle name. And I have the middle name.
MB: Makepeace. I know it's been used before by some schmuck, but I think it's a great middle name for you. Joseph Makepeace Heller. You will live forever with that name, and you'd be crazy not to take it.
JH: May I call you Mel?
MB: Of course.
JH: Then please call me Makepeace.