Herbert Gold, a novelist whose verbal inventiveness and keen eye for the complicated emotional transactions of love and marriage established him as one of the most promising of the young American writers to emerge after World War II, died on Sunday at his home in San Francisco. He was 99.
His death was confirmed on Monday by his daughter Ann Gold Buscho.
Born in Ohio, Mr. Gold brought a Midwestern skepticism and a deflating sense of humor to his tales of ordinary men and women trying to gain a foothold in the slippery terrain of romance — or, like him, struggling to connect the world of their Jewish immigrant parents with the realities of American life.
He was hard to categorize, and perhaps for that reason never had the kind of celebrated career that peers like Norman Mailer and Philip Roth enjoyed and that his early books seemed to augur. “Herbert Gold always seems on the verge of writing the big one,” Newsweek wrote in 1967.
But if the big one never arrived, Mr. Gold did produce, with regularity, a distinctive brand of fiction and journalism.
His first novel, “The Birth of a Hero” (1951), and the extravagantly praised “The Man Who Was Not With It” (1956) showed a hipster sensibility in their treatment of heroes working toward self-realization in a square American world. In “Salt” (1963), he turned a cold, knowing eye on love and ambition in the self-contained worlds of Madison Avenue and Wall Street.
The lurid carnival setting of “The Man Who Was Not With It” and Mr. Gold’s rich use of carny slang — some of it his own invention — offered a compelling picture of an alternative, underground America. But Mr. Gold, characteristically, distanced himself from the hipster label.
“If I can ever find the main office of the Beat Generation, I plan to hand in my resignation,” he once said, although he analyzed the Beats and the 1960s counterculture shrewdly in “Bohemia: Where Art, Angst, Love, and Strong Coffee Meet” (1993).
His most admired novels addressed a different theme: the complexities of Jewish identity in the United States. He explored this subject in two works that blended memoir and fiction — “Fathers” (1967) and its sequel, “Family” (1981) — and in a novel-memoir that tilted more strongly toward autobiography, “My Last Two Thousand Years” (1972). In 2008, he published a nonfictionalized memoir, “Still Alive! A Temporary Condition.”
Mr. Gold’s lively, if rueful, sense of the human comedy could be offset in his fiction by an undercurrent of sorrow and bitterness. In an essay, “Death in Miami Beach,” included in the 1962 collection “The Age of Happy Problems,” he wrote, “The mask of existence fits harshly on your skin, but it is in fact your only skin; and when harshly your skin is peeled off — beneath it you are naked and your naked isolation is no joy to you.”
Herbert Gold was born on March 9, 1924, in Lakewood, a suburb of Cleveland, which he liked to call, with tongue in cheek, “the Paris of northeastern Ohio.” His father, Samuel Gold, who had immigrated from Ukraine as a teenager, ran a grocery store, where his mother, Frieda (Frankel) Gold, helped out. The store was thinly disguised in one of Mr. Gold’s finest stories, “The Heart of the Artichoke,” about a 12-year-old’s romantic yearnings and his deep desire not to take over the family business. The story was included in the collection “Love and Like” (1960), which helped cement his early reputation.
After high school he took to the road, “living out a fantasy of rebellion from Cleveland,” he wrote in the essay “A Selfish Story.” He lived the bohemian life in New York City and Key West, Fla., and traveled with a circus before enrolling at Columbia University to study philosophy. In 1943, he enlisted in the wartime Army, which trained him as a Russian interpreter but never shipped him overseas.
He returned to Columbia after World War II and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy. He struck up a lifelong friendship with Allen Ginsberg there and nourished a cordial dislike for Jack Kerouac, who returned the favor, denouncing him to Ginsberg in a 1958 letter as “a nowhere nothing as a writer.”
In Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne on a Fulbright scholarship, Mr. Gold fell in with an expatriate literary crowd that included Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Saul Bellow. It was Bellow’s recommendation that helped persuade Viking to publish “Birth of a Hero,” about a Midwestern businessman whose adulterous love affair becomes a voyage of self-discovery.
Reviewing the novel in The Nation, the novelist and social critic Harvey Swados saw in it “a turning point in the intellectual’s attitude toward the middle class — discerning but not wholly contemptuous.”
Mr. Gold, assessing the book late in his career, took a dimmer view. “The best part of it was that it enabled me to proclaim, ‘I am a writer,’” he said, “but now I get a little nauseated when I try to read it.”
He revealed a particular insight into those ardent American males who are unlucky in love but still hopeful, even after the damage wrought by divorce and too-early fatherhood. “The one man who speaks consistently to their condition — who describes it minutely in all its embarrassingly familiar detail yet betrays its poignant optimism — is Herbert Gold,” Albert Goldman wrote in The New Republic in 1963.
Mr. Gold’s two marriages ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter Ann, his eldest child, from his first marriage, to Edith Zubrin; he is survived by three children from his second marriage, to Melissa Dilworth — Ari, Ethan and Nina Gold; two brothers, Robert and Eugene; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Another daughter from his first marriage, Judith Gold, died of breast cancer in 2016. Another brother, Sid, died in 1995.
Mr. Gold settled in San Francisco in the late 1960s and divided his time between fiction, journalism and short teaching stints at several universities. His middle-period novels included “The Great American Jackpot” (1969), about a rebellious Berkeley student who robs a bank, and “Swiftie the Magician” (1974), about a man’s romantic involvement with three women.
In later novels, like “He/She” (1980), “True Love” (1982), “A Girl of Forty” (1986) and “She Took My Arm as if She Loved Me” (1997), he returned to the emotional territory of his earlier fiction, but with an older man’s understanding of love and its pitfalls. The still-smitten hero of “He/She,” for example, plunges into a crisis when his wife makes her unhappiness known. The California heroine of “A Girl of Forty” tries to work out the new rules for romance when youth is gone.
Mr. Gold’s many visits to Haiti, beginning in 1950, yielded an impressionistic book of reportage, “Best Nightmare on Earth: A Life in Haiti” (1991).
“I used to write very much out of dream and nightmare; the dreams because I enjoyed them and the nightmares in order to control them,” he told Saturday Review in 1963, in a discussion of his fiction. “There is still an element of that. It is the way I know the world.”
On Sept. 3, Mr. Gold participated in a poetry reading at the venerable City Lights bookstore in San Francisco (he lived nearby in the Russian Hill section) in celebration of its 70th anniversary. Two days later, Scribner’s published “Best American Poetry of 2023,” which includes a poem by Mr. Gold titled “Other News on Page 24.”
It reads in its entirety:
Someone famous will die that day,
And the newspaper will report:
“More obituaries on page 24.”
For the curiosity of some,
the regret of several,
and the grief of a few.
Those few, they matter,
So they have a nice walk
in the Marin headlands
shadowed by a weary and worn mountain
(still green! still fragrant!
with pine and transplanted eucalyptus,
and most important: Still there!),
where I’m proud that the few gather trash,
but drop my ashes downwind,
and remember as I fly away.
Bernard Mokam contributed reporting.