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OLM Favorites: Learning How To Read: William Goldman’s The Temple of Gold

By (December 1, 2017) No Comment

templeofgoldmanAlthough I wish I could say it was Kerouac’s On the Road or Shelley’s poetry that lit my fuse and redeemed an adolescence otherwise given over to schlock TV and pop music, my redemption, such as it was, came in the form of a tawdry paperback novel filched from my older brother’s desk – The Temple of Gold by William Goldman. Not that there weren’t other books I hadn’t loved, but there were very few that engaged my attention, or could compete with Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, in the interim between children’s books and adult literature. Fortunately for me, young adult literature hadn’t yet leaped in to fill (or contaminate) the void, so I was spared the earnest preachments of adolescent fiction. The Temple of Gold was all sex and squalor, and at thirteen I was much too young to be reading it. That’s why I loved it.

My brother’s reading fare tended to pulpy World War II novels with pictures of stubbly GI’s on the front cover and promises of hellish battles with “Japs”and “Krauts” on the back. But I wasn’t interested in war. I was interested in sex. The jacket copy – “A stunning novel of today’s angry, rootless, seeking young men and women in a frantic search for fulfillment” – didn’t spell it out, but I had every reason to hope that that frantic search for fulfillment would include lots of sex, and by the standards of 1957 (when The Temple of Gold was published) or 1968 (when I read it), it did. There was first of all the never-to-be-forgotten scene of the narrator’s initiation through the ministrations of his shy, buxom piano teacher, a college student named Miss Twilly who skips out of her commencement exercises to seduce the sullen but handsome high school protagonist, Raymond Trevitt. Returning to the novel after forty-seven years, I found that I remembered the key line exactly:

“My God, Miss Twilly,” I said. “They’re huge.”

Subsequently Raymond and his best friend adopt the name “Twillys” as their code word for the female endowment, and if that sounds all too like the smirking sexism of the fifties and sixties, well, it is. In a later scene a slightly older Raymond rapes a volatile, unbalanced beauty because – well, apparently because the bitch had it coming to her. Apart from such excruciations, rereading The Temple of Gold induced fewer cringes than I had expected. To be fair, the treatment of some of the female characters – an early girlfriend or two, even the beautiful but crazy rape victim Annabelle – is no worse and in some respects more balanced than that in much of the (male) fiction of the period. But I really didn’t care whether the book was any good back then, and I don’t care now. It stirred my soul in a way that a more complex work of fiction might not have. Complexity would have sent me packing.

Mesmerizing as the comparatively tame and, I hoped, instructive sex scenes were, what got to me wasn’t the dirty bits but what I can only call the novel’s structural tonality. Almost every page in The Temple of Gold was shot through with bitterness, grief, and disillusionment, as if the twenty-one-year old narrator had already wearied of life and its crushing disappointments. It didn’t matter that many of the characters were stereotyped (Raymond’s cold, prissy father, a professor of Greek at the local college, not to mention the pneumatic Miss Twilly, whom it was thrillingly easy to imagine as a Playboy centerfold) or that the plot consisted of one damn thing happening after another. Somehow the narrator’s voice pulled me in. And what that voice was telling me, to borrow the alternately hardboiled and supersensitive idiolect of Raymond Trevitt, was that the world was just really goddamned sad. There were more nuanced ways of saying the same thing, but I didn’t want and I wouldn’t have understood nuance. Actually, all this weltschmertz was rather intoxicating; better a sad world than a stupid and trivial one, such as I saw on TV – not that I was prepared to give up that particular narcotic. If the mere thought of a goldfish bowl sufficed to trigger Raymond Trevitt’s incorrigible melancholia, it sufficed for me too:

In the years that have passed since it happened, I have wondered and thought many times over about why I loved them so much. The only answer I can come up with is this: they seemed so goddam happy just swimming around and around. I suppose a guppy knows what he is and never did one die of hubris which, by the way, is a Greek word that you can’t translate into English except by saying that it sort of means pride. . . . You could put guppies in a huge pool or in a little dish and they’d still swim around and around, happy, I think, and never complaining. They’d found the handle. Which is more than most of us can say.

Furthermore, it followed that if the world was sad, so were the people in it. And from that startling perception followed two others: (1) people were entitled to a little sympathy, and (2) apparently the place to talk about such things was in books, because nobody outside of them, from what I could tell, seemed disposed to ponder, at least publicly, the Meaning of It All.

I’m still pondering the Meaning of It All. Forty-seven years ago that garish paperback novel taught me some things about reading that are with me still. One lesson imparted was that there were lives other than my own – a thought rather alien to the (or rather my) adolescent mind. Naturally, I read Goldman’s novel as a report to and about my consciousness, and that intimacy mattered to me hugely – it still does, whether I’m reading Louise Glück’s lyrical meditations on marriage and family or Samuel Johnson’s idiosyncratic interpretations of Shakespeare. The world that William Goldman depicted – white, suburban, and middle class – was recognizably my own, so I’d have to wait for other books to broaden my horizons. For the moment, however, reading about the secret resentments, frustrations, and pathologies of people very much like my own neighbors was sufficiently broadening. If middle class America, as The Temple of Gold strongly implied, was seething with repressed misery, two contrasting responses suggested themselves to me: scorn or empathy. I decided to empathize. I’ve empathized ever since.

Still, The Temple of Gold wouldn’t be the novel it is if its protagonist hadn’t lavished so much scorn on the hapless parents, mediocre teachers, and bitchy girlfriends who stand in his way or just annoy the hell out of him. Nor would Western literature be quite the same (or nearly so interesting) if Juvenal, Jonathan Swift, William S. Burroughs and their like hadn’t been around to piss on many of our most cherished beliefs. Nevertheless, if given the choice, I’ll always prefer empathy to TheTempleOfGoldscorn, and so, rather surprisingly, does the implacable Raymond Trevitt, who finds himself late in the novel consoling a fellow sufferer with the very words that had once infuriated him when they had been spoken by his father: “Everybody fails. Everybody fails everybody. Just like God. God failed. God failed on His own son in the Garden of Gethsemane.” Maybe Raymond’s dear old dad wasn’t so contemptible after all. Maybe mine wasn’t either.

Although The Temple of Gold wasn’t taught in my junior high school and has never, so far as I know, appeared on any syllabus anywhere, it powerfully supported the argument made by my English teachers: reading literature is good for you. It enlarges your capacity for sympathy and understanding, it forces you to question assumptions you’ve taken for granted, it teaches you that the world is more various and complex than your experience of it. Although The Temple of Gold would have appalled and dismayed them — some of it appalls and dismays me — I still think my teachers were more right than wrong. I came away from that book appreciably more sensitized to the difficulties of adulthood, though I still had a good ten years of adolescent self-righteousness ahead of me. And the remarkable thing was that this sensitization reached outward and inward; that is, The Temple of Gold heightened my awareness of the inner lives of others, while doing much the same for my own. Embracing Raymond Trevitt’s sadness, longing, and helpful hints for unfastening brassieres, I went deep into that fascinating subject, my thirteen-year-old consciousness, while wondering for the first time about all those other consciousnesses. And if a cheap paperback can do all that, what can’t a real work of literature?

It may be that, a budding critic even then, I was reading way too much into a fairly crude novel. I hope so. Because here is yet another lesson The Temple of Gold imparted: William Goldman wrote the novel but I collaborated with him. It wasn’t so much what I got out of it as what I put into it, or some mysterious combination of the two that has pretty much defined my life as a reader from then to now. This was a book to read slowly over time, partly to savor its warmed over existentialism, partly to keep under wraps a lurid paperback that no one needed to know had turned me inside out.

I still read books slowly over time. People somehow expect my apartment to be crammed with incunabula and variorum editions. In fact I own fewer than a thousand books, and none with any special distinction or value. I have, on the other hand, read most of those books, and some many times over. I guess I owe it all to William Goldman; if I can’t read a book with the same (or nearly the same) intensity that I brought to The Temple of Gold, I figure it’s not worth reading or I’m not ready to read it. This means, of course, that I am hugely ignorant in areas that engage me less fully than others; the history of the world, for example. I do know a lot, however, about the mental landscape of adolescent boys.

boysgirlstogetherOnce again, rampaging Ray Trevitt served as something of a role model. A poor student but a ferocious bibliophile, he storms through his father’s library, dismissing Milton and Chaucer as “worse than the Chinese Water Torture” but responding to “Donne with his ladies and Herrick with his broads.” Whoever these people were, some of them apparently spoke to Raymond Trevitt the way that William Goldman spoke to me. Furthermore, Raymond’s passionate encounters with the written word didn’t preclude passionate encounters of a more corporeal nature. You could read a lot of good books and get it on with all the pliant Miss Twillys out there. You could, maybe, find a meaningful correspondence between life and literature. I didn’t know much about either one, but I could dimly perceive how they might inform and enrich each other.

Whether The Temple of Gold delivered The Truth – if that quaint notion can even be entertained anymore – its narrator had a lot of interesting things to say about untruth. At the risk of sounding like Raymond Trevitt, the sheer amount of bullshit in the world never ceases to amaze. I’ve recovered from the shock. Raymond, setting off for his local college, has not:

If you believe the brochures, you would probably think that as far as beauty is concerned, right after the Taj Mahal comes Athens College. This is not true. For it is an ugly school, being made up almost entirely of buildings that are eyesores and which they would like to tear down, except they haven’t got the money. . . . . But instead of admitting that their school is ugly, the old graduates speak of it as being “quaint.” Talk to anyone who ever went to Athens and that word is sure to pop up. Quaint.

Though he may not know what the truth is, Raymond has an acute sense of what it’s not. That’s not such a small thing; it may even be the beginning of adulthood. Along the route of his via negativa he comes to appreciate those rare experiences of authenticity, as when, before college breaks up their intense bond, he strolls the shore of Lake Michigan with his best friend from high school:

So we walked along, not speaking but just walking quiet on the sand, under that sliver of moon. We walked for miles, hours, never once saying a word. Because right then, we didn’t have to. We knew all there was to know; ourselves, the world, each other, everything. Then, before dawn, we sacked out on the beach, like we had done that night in Chicago years ago. And, as I was slipping away, all I heard was the slap, slap, slap of the waves against the shore.

Never mind the bad prose. And never mind that this idyll, for the author no less than his protagonist, would be inconceivable with a female rather than a male companion. Is this experience any less real for being expressed (badly) by an angry adolescent? And don’t angry adolescents sometimes remember things that their elders forget? Anyway, isn’t that one of the functions of literature – to restore us to ourselves, or if that’s not possible, to investigate why it’s not? That’s asking a lot of Dante, let alone William Goldman, who, it’s worth noting, was only three years older than his protagonist. Nevertheless, I do ask it, and sometimes I find, even in the unlikely guise of a mass-market paperback from 1957, certain human truths that are nowhere to be found in the world of official pronouncements, job responsibilities, and institutional discourse. Though I wouldn’t dream of suggesting the truth will set us free, learning how to recognize bullshit is still pretty liberating and one of the lessons that literature continually teaches me.

____
Stephen Akey is the author of College, Library, and A Guide to My Record Collection. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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