JEWS SHOULD HAVE a copyright on the absurd, I ask myself, lapsing into the idiom. Why should they laugh when cut, bleed when they're tickled? It is, as Joseph Heller might say, meshuggeneh .

And crazy is what Joseph Heller's third novel, Good as Gold , is, which shouldn't surprise anyone who's read Catch-22 or Something Happened . "Crazy" as in those newspaper clippings Heller's protagonist, Bruce Gold, so assiduously collects to buttress his reasoning that the world in general, and Washington in particular, is an irrational place. Here is one of them: "In the courtroom, [attorney Edward Bennett Williams] had told Judge Parker that Mr. Helms would 'bear the scar of a conviction for the rest of his life.' Outside, however, he told reporters that contrary to what Judge Parker had said, Mr. Helms would 'wear his conviction like a badge of honor.'" Perfect sense to a lawyer, perhaps, or a lunatic. Madness is a rational response to such oxymoronic insanity.

Bruce Gold is a little nutty himself. He is a university professor, the author of six nonfiction books only the first of which he regards as genuine, gathering material for his seventh, The Jewish Experience in America . He's not sure he's ever had a Jewish experience. He asks his sister Joannie, now called Toni, about hers. "'It's trying not to be,'" she says. "'We play golf now, get drunk, take tennis lessons, and have divorces, just like normal Christian Americans. We talk dirty. We screw around, commit adultery....' 'Do you screw around a lot?' he asked. 'Not since I married Jerry,' she replied, and teased, 'I do worse. I eat pork.'"

Gold's reputation is minor but respectable, and he possesses a dazzling flexibility of mind that allows him, "with just a few minor adjustments in emphasis, to deliver essentially the same speech to an elderly reactionary religious group that he had given the day before with equal success to a congress of teen-aged Maoists." Such flexibility brings him to the attention of the White House where a former classmate dangles before him the possibility of a job -- as unnamed source, senior spokesman, perhaps even secretary of state. "'All of us want you working with us as soon as possible after the people above us decide whether they want you working here at all,'" his Protestant friend tells him. "'Will you come?'" Gold does, and decides not to publish his diatribe, "Invite a Jew to the White House (and You Make Him Your Slave)." "If he did, he might never again be invited to the White House."

Gold's putative old friends from Brooklyn remain unimpressed. "'Now, of course, we're all very proud of you every time we read your name in the paper. But we still think you're a schmuck .'" They are not alone.

His family -- a doddering father who learned one good thing from the Christians, "Make money!", a loony stepmother, five tormenting sisters and a brother, their spouses, his stoical wife and tough-talking daughter -- are either contemptuous or oppressively reverent; sometimes both. "Once when Gold was visiting in Florida, his father drew him across a street just to meet some friends and introduced him by saying, 'This is my son's brother. The one that never amounted to much.'" His 12-year-old daughter Dina, who generally makes good her threats, says, "'Listen, Dad... you write anything about me in an article again and it'll be your ass.'" When she asks him why he had her if he didn't want her, Gold replies with irrefutable logic, "'Who knew it would be you?'" Clearly madness, like charity, begins at home. In the extended Gold family, madness is endemic, charity less obvious (though it exists, despite appearances).

In the world at large -- and again in Washington in particular where much of the novel takes place -- charity is nonexistent and madness epidemic. There are only a few sure things.One of them is revealed in a Chinese fortune cookie: "You will hurt your foot." The others Gold uses as titles for articles he is writing: "Every Change Is for the Worse," and "Nothing Succeds As Planned."

No, indeed, nothing does. And sometimes I thought, reading Good as Gold , that it, too, does not succeed as planned. Like the world out there, like Heller's previous novels, and like this one, the book is flawed and imperfect, too long to sustain its mordant Jewish jokes, its Orwellian Washington jokes. Yet the novel is a serious one, even the outrageous jokes, perhaps especially the jokes. For Bruce Gold is a crazy man, condemned to bitter laughter. Cut off from the traditional context that sustained his forebears and acutely conscious of the loss, of his fall from grace, he now behaves just like a normal Christian American. Like his sister, he even eats pork. Yet he is a man with a profound moral sense. Once in a while he is reminded of it, and reminds us of it.

"There's a definition of a friend I once heard expressed by my Swedish publisher," he says to his friend in the White House. "He's Jewish, Ralph, and he lived in Germany under Hitler as a child until his family escaped. He has only one test of a friend now, he told me. 'Would he hide me?' is the question he asks. It's pretty much my test of a friend too, when I come down to it. Ralph, if Hitler returns, would you hide me?"

Rooted in a particular kind of lowermiddle-class New York Jewish experience, Joseph Heller's novel finally breaks those limits by embracing them. When I didn't hate it, I loved it. Joseph Heller, of all people, would understand that.