“This is a story about a spy,” writes Millicent Dillon in Harry Gold: A Novel. “And a spy, by definition, lies.” On the book’s jacket someone at Overlook Press added, “Eschewing the confines of traditional biography and inverting the glamour of espionage…Dillon blends fact and fiction to chronicle the human drama of Harry Gold, the American chemist who became a Soviet spy.” Harry Gold, many Nation readers will recall, is not just any old American chemist who became a Soviet spy. He was self-confessedly the courier who brought to the Russians physicist Klaus Fuchs’s reports on the Manhattan Project. And, allegedly, Gold climbed a flight of stairs in Albuquerque, New Mexico, one summer day in 1945 and spoke words that fueled the red scare of the fifties and sent two people to their death: “I come from Julius.” Whereupon Julius Rosenberg’s brother-in-law, David Greenglass, a machinist who had failed every technical course he took in his brief college career, handed over a crudely drawn picture of an implosion lens that disclosed to the Russians the secret of the atomic bomb. Yeah, right. That Harry Gold.
Harry Gold, its cover tells us, is “innovative bio-fiction that brilliantly breaks new ground” between genres. Join the crowd: Joyce Carol Oates, Susan Sontag, even Edmund Morris have been traveling this same territory. Is it a novel based on fact or a biography with some fictionalized patches? What does it mean to base a novel on the real testimony of a habitual liar–a fiction built on a fiction masquerading as fact? Does this show us something about the multiplicity of reality, or is it all just a game?
Considered purely as a novel, Harry Gold is a good one. Dillon creates an interesting and usually believable inner life for Gold. This must have been a challenge, since Gold was, in some respects, a very ordinary man. For much of his life he lived with his parents and younger brother in working-class Philadelphia. Prevented by the Depression from studying chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, as he had planned, he worked as a chemical technician. Eventually he took courses in chemical engineering at Drexel Institute, and some years later he was awarded a degree in chemistry by Xavier University in Cincinnati, which led to more responsible jobs. Gold spent long hours in the lab and seems to have had few friends or outside interests.
But of course Gold was not an ordinary man. In the shlumpy body of the plodding lab tech lived a spy. The story is that during the Depression first his father and then Gold himself lost their jobs. A colleague who was still employed at Gold’s former lab told him that a friend was leaving a job at a laboratory in Jersey City and might be able to arrange for Gold to succeed him. Gold got the job and a grateful friendship with its previous inhabitant, whom Dillon calls Dave White. (His real name was Tom Black.) White/Black was a Communist, and pushed hard for Gold to join the party. But Gold, whose politics ran only to sympathy with the underdog and a dislike of anti-Semitism, fell asleep in meetings.
Nevertheless, when “White” asked Gold whether he would be willing to help representatives of a Russian trade organization gather information about US industrial processes, he readily agreed. And so began Gold’s underground life, full of street-corner meetings and trips to places Gold would not ordinarily have gone. When one of his Soviet controllers suggested that people might trust a married man more than a single one, Gold invented a wife and twin children, about whom he spun elaborate stories. Finally, after several years of low-level espionage–much of it involving information that was either in the public domain or became available to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program–Gold was chosen to be the courier for Klaus Fuchs, an exiled German physicist turned British citizen and Russian spy. When Fuchs joined the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, Gold traveled there to pick up his reports. There, too, he visited David Greenglass. After the war ended, Gold returned to his daily life. But after the arrest of Fuchs, who had returned to England, the FBI tracked Gold down. He told all, yet refused to bargain for a shorter sentence and was given thirty years.