In a front-page obituary, The New York Times described Joseph Heller as "the darkly surreal novelist who spoke to a generation." Heller, whose famous bestseller Catch-22 brought him universal acclaim as a literary icon, finished his final novel just before his death in 1999. Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man is a poignant and fascinating foray into the mind of an artist as he examines his life, seeking a source of inspiration for his last book.
Imagine an author -- primarily a novelist -- who has become a legend...no, more than that -- an icon! In his own lifetime, all because of the first novel he wrote, many years before.
Imagine that the novelist -- his name here is Eugene Pota -- realizes that the days are dwindling and he needs to come up with one more novel. But what should he write about?
There's a kind of futility to his search for a subject, of course, because, like so many noted novelists before him, all of Pota's output since that first landmark novel has been scrutinized and dissected and poked at -- and found wanting. That first novel, the one that launched him, the one that made him into the cultural icon that he seems fated to remain, has become a touchstone for his life, and his life since has been pretty much a critical failure. Oh, there were some financial successes, some New York Times bestsellers, but nothing anyone seemed to like half as much as that first one. And now, when he's faced with the need, the compulsion to write one more novel, take one final stab at the even bigger one, what should it be?
Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man follows the journey that Eugene Pota undertakes in his effort to settle on the subject of his final work. In his quest, he talks to his wife, Polly; he talks to his agent; he talks to his editor; he talks to old lovers; he even talks to his doctor. But while everyone has ideas, no one offers any real answers.
Along the way in his search, Heller -- through Pota -- pays homage to a number of favorite authors, including Samuel Clemens and Franz Kafka, and discusses the problems that have plagued so many writers in the past who enjoyed early successes and who then fell out of favor (among them, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Jack London, and Joseph Conrad). And at one point Pota almost convinces himself of the futility of trying again, as he speaks to a college gathering on the subject "The Literature of Despair."
Written with sections that alternate between Eugene Pota's real-life efforts to settle on what novel to write and his many and various false starts on writing that novel, Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man is a rare and enthralling look into the artist's search for creativity.