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Gold Mines the California Experience in City by Bay

August 18, 1986|HARRIET STIX

SAN FRANCISCO — Foreign TV crews, searching for the quintessence of this city, may zoom from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Castro district, Chinatown to Haight-Ashbury; but sooner or later they land on novelist Herbert Gold's Russian Hill doorstep.

They trail their equipment past the string of tiny rooms in his rent-controlled railroad flat and invariably, he said, end up interviewing him on its tiny deck, or on the roof. There, against the backdrop of North Beach, the TransAmerica Pyramid, the Bay Bridge, he said, "I talk about San Francisco. I'm treated as an expert."

Comes With the Territory

It is a role that does not utterly delight him. "If you live long enough," he said, it comes with the territory, and he explained he has been there before in consecutive incarnations as Herb Gold, the young writer, the Middle-Western writer, the New York writer, the Jewish writer ("Herb, you are not going to be Jewish all your life, are you?" one woman asked him), the San Francisco writer, the California writer.

Gold's latest novel is "A Girl of Forty" (Donald I. Fine Inc.: $16.95). After praising it as "what may stand hereafter as the definitive California novel," Publishers Weekly said "Gold brilliantly sums up the hedonistic life style and emotional immaturity of the breed."

That's good for Gold, if disconcerting to the natives. And Gold insisted that he sees Californians not so much as a breed apart as "an early warning system for the rest of the world. The advantage of contemporary regional writing is that you are writing about all America," he said.

It's just that California seems to have more of those "people working out, dieting, thinking right, falling in love continually," he said. "You can do it in Milwaukee, but you have to move it indoors in January, and you can do it better in California."

Modeled on Nobody

The central character in his novel, Suki (nee Susan), "is modeled on nobody, it is made up," Gold said, but then added that "on the other hand, I know a lot of girls of 40, a lot of women in California who don't want to face that they are not sex-exploring for the first time."

And although they may not be peculiarly Californian, "there are more here," he suggested. When he was in Milwaukee for a month, he said, "I was fascinated by the handsome, slim women playing racquetball. They exist everywhere--certainly on both coasts.

"If you were trying to write about life now, even if you use San Francisco, you are really trying to write about America, and really trying to write about the world," he said, adding, "when I go elsewhere, I find a little San Francisco wherever I am, I find little pieces of San Francisco, and of California, in Cleveland."

Russian Interpreter

Gold, who is 62, grew up in Cleveland and served during World War II in military intelligence as a Russian interpreter. "I got out of the Army and immediately got married and immediately had two kids," he said. He also got a BA and MA in philosophy from Columbia, and wrote a novel.

"I wrote the book ("Birth of a Hero") in Paris, where I was a student of philosophy at the University of Paris," he said. "I bought a bike, which was my downfall. You cannot do philosophy on a bike, but you can write a book."

He mailed it to Viking Press and said, "It was a real lucky thing for me. The next thing I knew, Saul Bellow looked me up to find out if I had really written the book" and to assess the chances of Gold writing another. In fact, he has published 16 novels, five collections of short stories and essays, a memoir, a book on Biafra and a blizzard of magazine and newspaper articles as well as reporting on "four or five wars and revolutions."

He also has taught at a number of universities, among them "Cornell, Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and Harvard."

All that activity was necessary to support his ever-increasing families. He has been married twice--"I have enough of Cleveland in me so that seems a lot," he said--and has five children, the oldest of whom are in their 30s, the youngest 15-year-old twin boys.

Supporting five kids doesn't permit a writer to sit around being introspective. "It has meant I have gotten out in the world," he said.

When Gold came back from Europe, he lived in Cleveland for a while, went to Haiti for 18 months on a grant to study Haitian life, and then, after his first marriage broke up, moved to Detroit, teaching at Wayne University and writing.

He went back to New York for four years, where he continued "to do a lot of writing. I had a negative income as a result of the divorce," he said.

Gold arrived in San Francisco in 1960. "I came out to do a play with the Actors' Workshop, plus I had a Ford Foundation grant," he said. "I'd sublet my place in Greenwich Village. After two weeks, I called my tenants and said, 'You can keep it.' "

He was delighted with San Francisco both for what it was and what it wasn't, the "nerve-crazed" New York circuit of "agents, publishers, network, advertising."

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