Ivan Gold Redux

WAS IT insensitive to suggest meeting Ivan Gold in the bar of New York's Gramercy Park Hotel, even if it is still morning and it's the only place there to talk?

"I'm looking at all that booze, as I talk to you," Gold says. "What's to prevent me from walking up and saying, 'This is all so much {expletive}, let me have a few pops.' Sobriety is so boring."

The urge passes; perhaps it was never strong in the first place. "I've got a stake in being sober. This is my testament. I'd look really dumb now if I went out and drank."

The testament referred to is Sams in a Dry Season (Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence). This story of a weekend in 1976 when alcoholic writer Jason Sams comes to the conclusion he must give up liquor is identified as a novel on the dustjacket, but it's one of those cases where the line between fiction and reality seems rather thin.

Case in point: Back in the '50s, the Gold family junkshop suffered a fire. The poet Galway Kinnell lived across the street, and wrote a poem about the devastation. In the novel, Gold quotes the whole poem, but changes the first line from "It was Gold's junkhouse . . ." to "It was Sams' junkhouse." Then there are things like the cameo appearance of Dan Wakefield in the book, which doesn't belong to the same reality as his blurb on the jacket.

Gold says he felt like "a sculptor doing a self-portrait of how he looked 15 years ago. As such, I had enough artistic detachment, enough pleasure in embellishing the act of memory with just pure making things up, that I'm quite comfortable considering it a novel. Yet I do not repudiate the fact that I'm the drunk. I still consider myself a drunk even though I haven't had a drink in 15 years."

He confesses that he was never very good at making things up. "Even Nickel Miseries, my first book, was based on things that happened to me." Seen from a perspective of 27 years, that 1963 collection is as notable for the effect it had on the author's career as for the short stories themselves. The whole back cover of the book was taken up with a quote from Lionel Trilling, then a critical eminence in America second only to Edmund Wilson.

Trilling writes that Gold's first story "startled me by its power and originality," that it had "a sureness of touch, a richness of detail, and a sense of performance such as are hardly ever to be seen in the writing of very young men." After continuing for a bit in this vein, the critic proclaims that the rest of the stories in Nickel Miseries "give promise of an even further development which will make Mr. Gold one of the commanding writers of our time."

No such luck. In 1969 there was a second book, a novel called Sick Friends that was faulted for its excesses and failed to win many friends. Then nothing -- until this year. It's hard not to see Trilling's words as some sort of a curse.

"A self-fulfilling prophecy," agrees Gold, who has supported himself for the last two decades by teaching around the Boston area. "People were saying, How can anyone live up to that kind of remark? And I came to internalize it. He didn't do me any favors, and yet he certainly meant to."

What went wrong? Gold started drinking at Columbia in the '50s, buying into the then-prevalent myth of the serious writer as a guy who always had a bottle at the ready. It's an old story: he consumed the liquor, and eventually the liquor consumed him. Along with his drinking, his tendency toward autobiography increased apace.

"First," he says, "I had a Hitchcock phase. You know the way he does walk-ons in his movies? I was then content to be a very minor character in my own prose. As I got older and more fearful of not being a writer, being a one-book writer or just disappearing entirely, I guess I moved a little front and center."

When he first tried to write sober in the late '70s, it came out "gibberish." Sams in a Dry Season, which is winning modest good notices as a portrait of quitting drink, had its origins in sketches Gold wrote for Boston magazine about Alcoholics Anonymous. "They got me off the perfectionist dime. I was trying to get every sentence perfect before I let it out of my head, let alone out of the house."

Any regrets? "If you're sober, you get to believe in miracles. Sobriety itself, for an alcoholic, is kind of a miracle . . . I feel this is how it had to be. I'm not the only writer who's only published three books at the age of 58, whatever the trajectory of his private life. When I was a kid, still in my thirties, I said I would settle for five good books. If I'm lucky I'll bring it in."The Matthiessen Case MORE THAN seven years after it was filed, the second of the libel suits against Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse has come to an end. Former South Dakota governor William Janklow, who objected to being described as a rapist in the book, has let expire the 90-day period during which he could appeal his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In July, the South Dakota Supreme Court upheld a lower court's dismissal of the suit. Coupled with the U.S. Supreme Court's earlier dismissal of another lawsuit against the book by an FBI agent, the way is now cleared for republication. Viking will reissue Spirit, an epic account of the battle between federal agents and members of the radical American Indian Movement, in May.

A happy (if expensive, to the tune of more than $2 million in legal fees) ending for author and publisher? Well, not quite. Their lawyer, Martin Garbus, says "it's not inconceivable" the plaintiffs could sue all over again after the new edition is published.

"The law has changed," he explains. "What might have been permissible before might not be permissible now, because the law regulating a journalist's expression of opinion concerning public officials has changed."

That happened earlier this year, when the Supreme Court decided in the Milkovich case that it is possible for opinions unsupported by facts to be libelous. With the subsequent retirement of Justice Brennan, a firm defender of freedom of the press, the court's tilt in the opposite direction is likely to increase.

News accounts of the Crazy Horse case tended to focus on the rape allegation, but actually hundreds of pages came under attack.

"It's like a textbook for the outside parameters of what you can say about a public figure," Garbus says. "It covers whether you can safely make allegations of criminal conduct, whether you can make allegations of moral turpitude, whether you can have opinions about whether a public figure committed a crime or was guilty of incompetence or was dishonest or is unworthy to hold office, and whether you can have opinions about whether government officials can conspire to obstruct justice, suborn perjury, suppress documents."

Over the past seven years, the courts found for Matthiessen on all these issues, but the plaintiffs never gave up. You'd think Garbus would be worried about giving them ideas for the future. "They don't," he replies, "need me to tell them."The Loneliest Books THE GOODWILL Book Sale is probably the largest in the area, so if you go during its waning moments you can get a good idea of what the public doesn't care for at any price. A hundred thousand books were brought into the Convention Center, and for five days thousands of people pawed over and carted off 99 percent of them. The last day was Bag Day; for a couple of bucks it was all you could carry.

Subjects on which there is ferocious interest in Washington had consequently been vaporized. On the Food table, there was Martinis and Whipped Cream: The New Carbo-Cal Way to Lose Weight and Stay Slim, a copy of A UFO Has Landed that wandered in from elsewhere, and not much else. The Sports table had already been removed and the military category had only a bunch of outmoded disarmament books.

But some areas had been spurned. Americana, for instance, still had two full tables. You'd think someone would have been interested in The Lobbyists: The Art and Business of Influencing Lawmakers, a 1951 title that indignantly states that "there are 39 known lobbyists in Washington for every 10 congressmen." This was worth a dollar for its quaintness, if nothing else.

And is there anything more sad or useless than a political book that has outlived its (generally very brief) moment in the sun? They were all here, from Eleanor McGovern's Uphill to two copies of Nancy Reagan's To Love a Child. These and all the other orphans were donated to charity after the sale. From charity to charity, they'll continue on in search of a home.

Will Ronald Reagan's autobiography, An American Life, soon be joining them? Simon and Schuster's $6-million trophy, currently proving underwhelming to reviewers, has been outpaced in sales by Millie's Book by a factor of 2 1/2-1 at Waldenbooks next to the White House. Reagan "is a legitimate bestseller," says manager Jim Henley, "but it's not selling as well as the dog." Sidney Kramer Books, a shop that concentrates on politics, sold a "reasonable" 13 copies in its initial week. "I think people will give this as a gift," the store's Bill Kramer says hopefully, "regardless of its literary merit or political revelations."In the Margin LOOKED AT objectively, The Mystery Book of Days makes little sense. For each day of a (non-specific) year, it gives birthdates of mystery writers or other events (first execution by gas in the United States; publication of The Big Sleep; obscure conman Serge Rubinstein found strangled in his apartment). Since this isn't information that you really needed to know, the virtues of the Mysterious Press volume must be found in the design and illustrations (which are rather good) and the quirkiness of the knowledge imparted, which is uneven. Among the better bits: March 19 commemorates a warning by the "Axeman of New Orleans" that he will kill at random on that day but promises to pass over all homes where jazz is playing . . .

When you use inside information on Wall Street, it's a crime. When you exploit those crimes for a book, they give you a six-figure contract. Dennis Levine, the managing director of the now-bankrupt Drexel Burnham Lambert who pleaded guilty to securities fraud and fingered greedmeister Ivan Boesky, has sold his story to Putnam. Said one source dismissively: "There's nothing in it that hasn't been in a dozen other Wall Street books."