Review: The Death of Eli Gold

Not enough life on a death bed

By David Herman, April 4, 2011
Baddiel: writing about a writer

Baddiel: writing about a writer

By David Baddiel
Fourth Estate, £18.99

David Baddiel has already had a hugely successful career as a comedian - and indeed chart-topping song-writer with Frank Skinner and Ian Broudie for their 1996 football anthem, Three Lions. Since then, Baddiel - like Ben Elton before him - has moved from TV comedian to novelist. Now, further along this trajectory, he has produced a novel about a novelist.

Eli Gold is "the world's greatest living writer". He is a composite of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Arthur Koestler. Like Bellow, the elderly Gold is leaving behind his most recent wife and a very young child. Like Roth, he is a feisty American Jew, who likes writing about sex. Like Koestler, he had a controversial suicide pact with a much younger wife. (And, like Baddiel, he was born in Troy, in New York State).

As Gold lies dying in New York, we find out about his life from four characters: his precocious eight-year-old daughter, Colette; his anxious, unloved son, Harvey; a Mormon, on a mission to avenge his dead sister; and, across the Atlantic, Gold's first wife, Violet, now living in an old people's home in London.

Telling the story of Gold's life (and death) through four pairs of eyes is a good idea. Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer have both used it extremely effectively. But for this kind of ventriloquist writing to succeed the tone has to be just right. And here Baddiel falls down. He never really captures the voice of eight-year-old Colette; or of Violet, reflecting on her broken marriage of half-a-century ago. And the least said about the Mormon hit-man the better.

The one invention that does work is fat, sweaty Harvey, his career in free fall, now on to his eighth therapist. He is a terrific, comic invention, a real suffering joker out of the Bellow-Roth mould, with a nod to that other rundown British slob in Manhattan, John Self in Martin Amis's Money.

At times, Baddiel shows a good turn of phrase and there are more than a few laugh-out-loud moments, usually at the expense of the luckless Harvey and the nasty fifth wife, Freda, loving the role of celebrity widow. But the prose is hit-and-miss and the moments of humour are counterbalanced by such offerings as: "Harvey is, in so many ways, a dual citizen"; "self-awareness settles like soft snow back upon him". Crucially, Baddiel's evoking of Gold's writing is unsatisfactory. Whenever we are shown a passage by "the world's greatest living writer", it is clunky and uninteresting.

But one interesting thing about The Death of Eli Gold is the question it raises about Anglo-Jewish writing. Baddiel's previous novel was about a German-Jewish refugee. This one is about a Jewish-American writer in New York. Where are the British stories for Jewish writers today?

David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 11:59am, April 4 2011