cover image Joe Gould’s Teeth

Joe Gould’s Teeth

Jill Lepore. Knopf, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-1-101-94758-6

This disjointed true-life detective tale from Lepore (The Secret History of Wonder Woman) digs into the story of Joe Gould, a Greenwich Village eccentric who was introduced to the world by Joseph Mitchell’s 1942 New Yorker profile, “Professor Sea Gull.” Gould befriended a group of artist and writers that included E.E. Cummings and Ezra Pound, and told anyone who would listen that he was writing a book entitled The Oral History of Our Time. In 1964, following Gould’s 1957 death in a mental hospital, Mitchell wrote what was to be his last New Yorker profile, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” which cast doubt on the existence of the Oral History. The ever-curious and intrepid Lepore sets out to discover whether Gould did indeed ever write a word of his oral history, digging deep into New York University and Harvard archives and leafing through the more than 800 surviving pages of Gould’s diary. Lepore never finds definitive evidence, but the more she learns, the uglier the story gets—including Gould’s fascination with “race pride” and his harassment of African-American sculptor Augusta Savage. She speculates that Gould’s friends contrived his endearing persona as an attempt to save him from institutionalization. Lepore’s book, which itself originated as a New Yorker article, unfortunately comes across as thin and overstretched, and its subject is unlovable and unsympathetic. (May)