Cloak Without Dagger: The Traitor Is Mr. Nice Guy

Harry Gold , by Millicent Dillon. Overlook Press, 280 pages, $26.95.

Six years ago, when I came to New York from the Midwest to seek my fortune as a writer of the intellectual sort, I developed an obsession with an obsession. Colleagues in my adopted city could not stop arguing about the Communist Party of the United States of America. And I wondered: Wherefore this ridiculous pursuit?

After poring over probably 800 book reviews and magazine articles (and occasionally an actual book), the soup began sorting itself out–Radoshes and Meer-opols; Scheers and Klehrs; Navaskys, Weinsteins, Issermans, Schreckers. One day I woke up to discover that their obsession had become mine. This Jewish soap opera was just too damned irresistible. I had become a New York intellectual.

So what does that mean? It means I walk around with my cranium burdened by a bulking cast of heroes and villains (or villains and heroes, depending on my perspective that day), and their queer literary doppelgangers, too: hectoring 50’s right-wing scribes and even more hectoring 50’s anti-Stalinist left-wing scribes; New Left revisionists and New Right revisers of same; fevered Venona decryptionists–and, creeping forth even today, the ones who are revising them, ghosts of ghosts of ghosts of ghosts. It is not a healthful situation, not just for tender-minded 30-year-olds like myself, but for innocent readers everywhere.

I come to sing the praises, then, of Millicent Dillon, who has conjured up out of this crowded waxworks a man who fits no mold. Around this man, she has created a wondrous and strange work of art. On the surface, her novel is placid, but she’s a patient, thoughtful writer whose writing rewards patience and thoughtfulness–and rereading.

The eponymous hero of Harry Gold (I mention this for those of you who do not have the good fortune to be a New York intellectual) was a real historical figure. Both an important courier of contraband information for the Soviet Union and a key witness against the Rosenbergs, Gold inevitably comes down to us as one of the stockest of stock characters in these melodramas: the pink who becomes a fink. In the way these tropes usually unfurl, such figures are supposed to stir in us the cathartic pathos of tragedy–Tru Believers who are either crushed by an impossible moral conundrum, or who switch sides and yet remain trapped in the same dogmatic absolutism.

That ain’t Harry Gold, at least as Ms. Dillon depicts him. (Leave aside for today the question of whether she is accurate to the historical record: Her book is a novel.) This is the kind of Marxist Harry Gold is: He’s hardly aware of the Spanish Civil War, utterly baffled why anyone would want to go fight in it. Like our 40th president, his answer to every awkward conversation is to tell a baseball story. He doesn’t understand what his friends are talking about when they say workers are chained to their machines by an invisible chain because his own boss is really nice. He doesn’t read the newspaper.

This is the kind of spy Harry Gold is: He keeps the receipts, stubs from movie tickets and train schedules from his espionage assignations–”things he didn’t need now but that he might need someday, you never could tell.”

And what kind of person is Harry Gold? That is the mystery. “We are confronted with a question of motive, and of intent,” a lawyer says at his trial near the end of the book, at just the time in a mystery when questions like these are supposed to be asked. You are puzzling out the clues not to solve the crime, but to solve the man. The creepy selflessness, the compulsion to work in his lab until 2 a.m., the moral banality, the leveling into equivalence of every emotion, the sweetness, the thoughtfulness, the militant lack of self-knowledge: What does Harry Gold want?

As Ms. Dillon tells it, Harry begins “sharing” industrial formulas (how to extract Vitamin D from fish oils, that sort of thing) with the Soviet Union because a friend who got him a job, a Communist, asks him to. “The very word communist upset him, but how could he be upset with Dave after all he had done for him and his family?” Through inertia–and then after blackmail threats, which Harry may have been dense enough to miss–he keeps passing on more chemical recipes and making failed attempts at recruitment, eventually winning the Order of the Red Star (his contact peels back its newspaper wrapping so he can catch a glimpse; he will only be able to claim his reward after the Revolution).

Then, in a development you might think would change his life, he begins traveling to New Mexico to collect information on the Manhattan Project from an exiled physicist, Klaus Fuchs, and then makes another contact whose identity is confirmed to Harry by the matching half of a Jell-O box top and the ominous greeting, “I come from Julius.” (This is no fiction: A cultural-studies maven has written an entire essay on the semiotics of that box top.)

Harry is caught, confesses. After a spell of ignominy and death threats, he goes to prison, where he is able to carry out a fine study of glucose tolerance for the U.S. Public Health Service, is paroled in 1966, and serves as chief biochemist at Philadelphia’s John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital. The medical students raise money to establish a Harry Gold Memorial fund “in appreciation,” as Ms. Dillon records in the last line of her novel–it doesn’t look like much on its own, but in context it turns out to bear as much existential depth as any last line I have read–”of his selfless and untiring devotion to their needs.”

These facts do nothing to illuminate the mystery–which is the point. This is a study of the elusiveness of motive. J. Edgar Hoover called Harry Gold one of the criminals of the century. But it is exactly Ms. Dillon’s project to think about this man’s smallness. History fits him like a bad suit. He believes in nothing, apologizes about his inability to believe, thinks endlessly about it, agonizes over it. And yet he pursues his treasonous project with fervid devotion. He is a strange man to be setting the world on its ear. Millicent Dillon’s Harry Gold isn’t Everyman, or Superman. But he is deeper the deeper you delve, even as the surface remains plain. Which makes him more like us than not, because we are all strange men. And given the treatment of the subject elsewhere, giving us a Communist who can make you feel that way is a true literary accomplishment.

Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (Hill & Wang) will be out in January 2001.

Cloak Without Dagger: The Traitor Is Mr. Nice Guy