Joseph Heller, posthumously, departing with a 'Catch 76'

On Books

June 18, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

In an age of almost pathological fixation with youth and imitations of youth -- their music, habits, fashion, sports -- it is cheering to note that a towering handful of the most distinguished American craftsmen of fiction, all far advanced in both careers and lives, have in the last year turned out powerful and important work.

This season's freshest novels: Philip Roth's "The Human Stain," Saul Bellow's "Ravelstein," E. L. Doctorow's "City of God" and John Updike's "Gertrude and Claudius." Roth is 67; Bellow, 84; Doctorow, 69; and Updike, 68. In my estimation, Updike's book is trivial. But the others are splendid novels -- arguably the best works ever written by Roth and Doctorow. Excellence from Bellow.

Now comes a posthumous novel from Joseph Heller, who died in January 1999 at 76: "Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man: A Novel" (Simon & Schuster, 233 pages, $23). Heller, I believe, would be delighted to have it pointed out that the book both proves and rebuts this premise of late-life productivity -- a Catch 76, you might say.

Heller was born in 1923. After his well-chronicled service in the Army Air Corps in World War II, which included 60 combat bombing missions, he went to college and worked at a variety of jobs. He began working on "Catch 22" in 1953 and it was published in 1961.

He subsequently wrote other novels, including "Something Happened," "Closing Time" and "Good as Gold" -- none of them quickly. His memoir, "Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here," was published in February 1998. In that charming and celebratory book, he declared that "Catch 22" was not only his most important book, but his favorite.

He begins "Portrait of an Artist" with an "elderly author" contriving to write a bright, colorful novel, and finding himself too tired to want to go on. The hero/narrator is Eugene Pota, "because that's what I want it to be," Heller writes, in one of his not infrequent breakings of the line between narrator and real self. (Pota = Portrait Of The Artist.)

At the time of the book, Pota, like Heller, is 75 years old. While his ideas for a new novel seem clever, Pota feels somehow unfulfilled and disatisfied. Where, he wonders, "had ingenuity gone?"

Why -- or rather what -- to write? His frustration: "The artificer who lives long enough, particularly the writer of fictions for page and stage, may come to a time in his life when he feels he has nothing new to write about but wishes to continue anyway."

And, later, "Eugene Pota ... craved with each new production, though elevated, demanding, and artistically intellectual rather than merely fascinating, to achieve ... a massive, mass-market best-seller that would make a big blockbuster of a movie and win for him more than two million dollars."

Pota examines almost endless possibilities. Variations on works both great and small, an outrageous sex book, a novel narrated by the novel itself, an autobiography of God's wife. This leads to an inventory of the personal and professional deterioration of the classic Russian writers: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Pushkin, Gorki.

Then, in a lovely riff on Kafka's "Metamorphosis," a financial actuary from a company known as "Goldman Sucks" becomes a cockroach in New York. There is a proposal in which he identifies himself as a "gene" -- Gene Pota -- "just a string of molecules" of eternal sameness. Heller plays with Melville and Mark Twain.

In one mock passage, Tom Sawyer goes out in pursuit of a mentor, a great and successful writer who can instruct him how to become one himself. He begins, of course, searching for Mark Twain, but is turned away and then repulsed by Samuel Clemens' virtual bankruptcy of material wealth and of personal life.

Jack London is worse, as are Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, Henry James, Joseph Conrad. All are miserable or early dead -- dreadful hero material. Tom Sawyer decides to become either a railroad engineer or a millionaire.

At the conclusion, Pota's "travels through the literary hall of fame of America had steered him into a mortuary of a museum with the failed lives and careers of suffering heroes who were only human. ... These were only driven human beings of high intentions who wished to be writers and who, in most other respects, seemed more than normally touchy, neurotic, mixed up, and unhappy."

Which brings us to Eugene Pota -- and Joseph Heller. What about them??

Grim as Heller's assessment of the writing life may be taken to be, the single quality that is most sustaining is his playfulness. His most memorable work, his trademark, is based on irony itself. "Catch 22" is the most memorable metaphor for irony in modern American literature. It's an antidote to the unbearable insanity of life -- aspirin for the tormented soul.

That is heroic playfulness, irony as ultimate truth. And that quality tinkles and skips lightly through every page of this book.

In whole, Heller's last novel is a declaration of failure, a plaintive, unrequited yearning for an accomplishment, a recognition -- perhaps a sense of self -- that eluded Heller after the immense success of "Catch 22" and its elevation, through film and massive sales, to the level of a high cultural icon.

By any reasonable critical standards this book does not fulfill that ambition. Do people take needs to the grave and beyond?

But this is a novel of dramatic candor and courage. It is cheery, coming around symmetrically to its beginnings and celebrating the act of writing as important, while bemoaning as absurdity the demand of writing as a fulfillment of oneself. It is sweet, ultimately, and very entertaining.

Taken together, Heller's life, his work, leave a legacy of high spirit that is positive, artful, decent and -- above all --devoted to the truth. That, I believe, is a heritage to celebrate.

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