Joe Gould's Secret by Joseph Mitchell

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Joe Gould's Secret
by Joseph Mitchell
Viking Press, 1965

Joe Gould’s non-alcoholic drink of choice was what he called ‘cowboy coffee’: strong black coffee, that would cause your hands to “shake and the whites of your eyes [to] turn yellow.” I let the coffee stew in the press for a few minutes longer than I usually would before I sit down to write this piece. Steam rises from the top of the tar-black liquid as I raise the cup to my lips and take a sip. It tastes awful, but that’s beside the point; I’m not drinking it for its taste. I’m drinking it out of the kinship I feel with Joe Gould, a man who wasn’t afraid to beg, borrow and steal to pursue his sole passion.

I can’t help but feel that Joe Gould’s Secret, Joseph Mitchell’s 1965 book of New Yorker profiles about the eponymous writer, will appeal to all creatives. It’s a vivid portrait of a man whose writing was the “only thing that matters a damn to [him],” a man who would float in and out of smoky bars until four in the morning, writing portfolio in hand, and who would write whenever he could, sometimes for hours on end when the need overtook him. It was Mitchell’s portrayal of this blind determination that first captured me right from the book’s opening. I’m all too familiar with the joy that can overtake my mind when a new idea arises, the urge to follow a thought to its conclusion and to get it down on the page.

Mitchell’s book is as much about Gould as a human being as it is about the city that he was enamoured with, the place where he “always felt at home,” and I very quickly got the sense that this infatuation with New York City, intense knowledge of its every nook was shared by Mitchell. It’s a book that took me all over the map: to artist’s studios where obscene portraits of Gould were stored, to the high-rise offices of The New Yorker where Mitchell worked, to seedy hotels on the Bowery where Gould would often sleep, to the genealogy room of the New York Public Library where Gould would often write. Mitchell took me to the places that travel guides don’t tell you about: the places where real life happens, where events are constantly unfolding, and this was utterly engrossing.

The book brims with affection, not just for the city, but for Gould himself; there’s a great deal of compassion for his subject that Mitchell distills on every page. Mitchell doesn’t just portray Gould’s magnetism but also the great mystery of his character, and I always had a sense while reading that there was something more to him that Mitchell wasn’t privy to, that there were some pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that had slipped out of the box upon opening and had tumbled out of view.

This is what made Mitchell’s book such a compulsive reading experience. I was filled with the desire to know the truth about Gould, and the truth turned out to be far more affecting than I could have imagined. It was the discovery that Gould’s life was one of grim repetition instead of artist fervour that turned the book from merely an entertaining reading experience to a supremely moving one. Gould’s repeated rewriting of the same four or five chapters of his work had a painful resonance for me. It made me think of a blue A4 binder that sits on the shelf beside my writing desk containing the first 30 or so pages of a manuscript that I dove into with great enthusiasm but quickly abandoned due to self-doubt. It also made me think of Mitchell himself, a writer who after the publication of Joe Gould’s Secret was struck by a case of writer’s block so strong that he failed to publish anything else in his lifetime. It made me think of the uncertainty of skill, and how only some transcend that uncertainty. A web of shared experience had emerged, one in which Gould, Mitchell and myself were tangled. This central concern makes Mitchell’s book transcend the genre and turns a story about an eccentric homeless artist in the 40’s and 50’s into something that will always be relevant and important.

By the time I finish writing, the cups of cowboy coffee that I’ve consumed has only reached a measly tally of two. I’m clearly not cut from the same cloth that Gould was in this regard. As I turn my computer off and head upstairs my eye passes over the blue binder on the shelf. I take it down and open it up. It’s time to get to work.

Jack Rowland is a writer and critic living in Australia.