"This author was determined," says the apparently autobiographical narrator of Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man
. "He often appropriated as his own personal infirmity the concluding words of the unnameable voice in Samuel Beckett's The Unnameable
, 'I must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on.'" And on his last day on Earth, Joseph Heller was still polishing this, his last and strangest novel. It is essentially an essay about a writer who's exactly like him--old and stuck for an idea for his next book. Seeking inspiration, he chats with his wife, his editors, and his friends, and floats one high-concept scheme after another.
How about a novel about the gangsters who ran Coney Island, the enchanted land of his childhood? Nah, too much plot to concoct. Perhaps he could update a classic: Tom Sawyer as a Harvard MBA, or Kafka's The Metamorphosis transposed to Manhattan. When these don't pan out, Heller takes a stab at mythology, done in the manner of his old pal Mel Brooks. Here Zeus's wife complains about his flagging ardor:
I try to put myself in Leda's place. It could be kind of thrilling, I guess, being overpowered by a huge male swan, especially after realizing it was Zeus.... I'd like to see him take the trouble to surprise me like that, even once. But that doesn't happen. He won't waste tricks like that on me. He never does, he knows he doesn't have to. When he comes to me it's never with anything new, it's always just the same, always just the same old god.
Increasingly desperate, the author tries out titles on his friends, and A Sexual Biography of My Wife
stirs some interest. Still, his tentative fictions don't grab you the way the novel's sad, searing reminiscences do. When Heller--I mean, the narrator--has a tearful reunion with his adulterous old flame (who's now stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease), or asks another female acquaintance whether she regrets turning down his long-ago offer of romance, we get a privileged glimpse into the private mind of a very public author. "I want to cap my career with a masterpiece of some kind," the narrator tells his editor. This poignantly discursive book is not a masterpiece, but Joseph Heller did go on trying to the end. --Tim Appelo
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From Publishers Weekly
This slim posthumous novel, playing blithely with the idea of an elderly novelist in search of a subject, is the last thing the author of Catch-22 left us. Although not a profound leave-taking, it is nonetheless a pleasant reminder of the author's great charm and fluency. Eugene Pota, Heller's alter ego here, rifles the back corners of his mind for a new novel that will restore to him some of the luster that shone from his earlier efforts. In the beginning he tries to do something with Tom Sawyer, first with a postmodernist Tom on Wall Street, then as a character determined to run down the secrets of success for an American writer. But Pota discovers, in his wry researches into the lives of Tom's own creator, Jack London, Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce, Herman Melville, Henry James and many others, that a combination of prosperity and cheerfulness are profoundly elusive for an author. This segues into a speech Heller himself used to make about the many afflictions, particularly alcoholism, of noted American writers. Pota toys with the idea of a book to be called The Sexual Biography of My Wife, then realizes he doesn't know enough about women's sexuality, and doesn't like to ask his wife, so he calls on some old flames, and begins a few cautious, elderly flirtations. He plays, too, with the idea of the Creation from God's point of view, has some fun with Hera and Zeus, and engages in regular, despondent talks about his lack of progress with his editor (who is unfortunately about to retire). Some of this is familiar, some is simply rambling, but it is all done with a spirit of faintly irritated self-reproach that is endearing. At the very least, this is a frank and at times funny look at how a legendary American novelist coped with the onset of old age. (June)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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