While a casual reading of Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret might persuade the reader that the secret was that Gould never actually wrote his epic history of conversations he overheard, I think Mitchell tells us straight away what his secret was in the first few pages of his book. Joe Gould tells Mitchell, “There is nothing accidental about me” (5). This neatly captures his secret: even when he was suffering from his choices, dressing “under a red exit light” (9), not writing that history, he was where he wanted to be, not surrounded by a “shirt-sleeved multitude” (13).
Mitchell initially describes Gould as “an ancient, enigmatic, spectral figure, a banished man” (53), but he gives him flesh and spirit a few pages later, with an interesting effect:
“…his face was alert and on guard and yet so tired and so detached and so remotely reflective that it was almost impassive. Looking straight at me, he looked straight through me. I have seen the same deceptively blank expression on the faces of old freaks sitting on platforms in freak shows and on the faces of old apes in zoos on Sunday afternoons (57).
It’s as though Mitchell is fiercely warning the reader that Joe Gould is not a sideshow. I was intrigued by this—not that Mitchell was showing his compassion but that he warned people as surely as if he’d told us to back the hell off. The mechanics? I don’t know what to call it, but I know I want to write like that. In another passage, Mitchell writes, “…or I would see him sitting among the young mothers and the old alcoholics in the sooty, pigeon, crumb-besprinkled, newspaper-bestrewn, privet-choked, coffin-shaped little park at Sheridan Square” (53). Besides being a delightfully visual sentence, this paints a vivid picture of the author himself, I think. I catch an underlying impatient despairing anger in the way he rattles off how dreadful the park is—then he tops it off with “coffin-shaped,” as though its inhabitants were already dead. (Much later, Mrs. Sarah Ostrowsky Berman refers to “the city’s living dead” (158).)
One thing in particular captivated me in this book: the similarity between the author and his subject. I probably wouldn’t have noticed it except for one small statement of Gould’s: “I was under-sized; I was a runt, a shrimp, a peanut, a half-pint, a tadpole” (62). What struck me was that it sounded like something Mitchell would write. Indeed, he rattles off descriptions in exactly the same manner throughout the book. For example, in addition to the previously cited passages, he describes a barroom: “…it was long and narrow and murky, a blind tunnel of a place, a burrow, a bat’s cave, a bear’s den” (97); in describing magazines Gould brought out: “They were dog-eared and grease-spotted and coffee-stained” (76). I considered the possibility that all the dialogue was simply Mitchell’s style, but he took notes, and, I believe, recorded some conversations. Journalistic integrity dictates that he transcribe exactly what Gould said.
So I wonder: Did Mitchell see himself in Joe Gould? Gould’s fascination with every day conversations certainly mirrors Mitchell’s job as a journalist, but I think another statement of Gould’s captures the meat of it: Referring to his monstrously long history, he says, “Everything else I’ve ever done may disappear, but I’ll still be immortal” (77). I think, at the heart of every writer, is the desire to have one’s words live beyond one’s life. I wonder if Joe Gould’s secret was Mitchell’s as well.