It sounds cloying and self-indulgent, but it’s actually quite entertaining: a racy, readable amalgam of memoir, joke book (a...

PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST, AS AN OLD MAN

                        One guesses that the late Joseph Heller (1923-99) must have chafed at the irony of a 40-year literary career during which he was identified almost exclusively as the author of his first novel.  Catch-22 (1961), which was based on his own experiences as a WWII Air Force bomber pilot, added a phrase to the language, found the perfect comic metaphor for the insanity of military (and, by extension, most other) bureaucracies, and helped transform postwar American realistic fiction into the hybrid satirical picaresque forms whose influence persists to this day.

            Heller’s second novel, Something Happened (1974), was an underrated work:  a bleak deconstruction of the façade of normality that insulates a prototypical man in a gray flannel suit from his cautiously suppressed inmost fears and desires.  So was his wildly surrealistic 1968 play We Bombed in New Haven.             Subsequent books were uneven.  Re-creations of the worlds of King David and Rembrandt (in God Knows and Picture This, respectively) seemed labored.  But there was much to admire in Heller’s refreshingly impertinent Washington novel Good as Gold (1979), the autobiographical No Laughing Matter (1986), about his ordeal as a sufferer from Guillain-Barré Syndrome, and the recent Closing Time (1994), a decidedly autumnal sequel to Catch-22.             Now comes the novel Heller completed shortly before his death.  It’s self-described as “a tract in the form of fiction about a life spent writing fiction.”  The life in question is that of Eugene Pota, identified (by the book’s author, who may or may not be Joseph Heller thus observing the simulacrum of himself) as the seventy-something author of a famous first novel based on his wartime experiences, who’s bored with old age, the mocking failures of the more interesting bodily functions, and the imperfect consolations of celebrity.             Heller’s portrait jovially records Pota’s frustrated efforts to find a subject for his final book (“I want…to go out on a note of triumph”):  notably, his several false starts in attempting to rewrite The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” the story of Abraham and Isaac, the Greek myth of Zeus and Hera, and – in an effort that mildly amuses and irritates Pota’s long-suffering spouse Polly – “A Sexual Biography of my Wife.”

            It sounds cloying and self-indulgent, but it’s actually quite entertaining:  a racy, readable amalgam of memoir, joke book (a few of the gags are pretty hoary), and a comfortable-as-old-shoes rumination.  Heller’s mellowest book recaptures, in a modestly lyrical minor key, the same strains of plaintive comic madness that made Catch-22 a permanent contribution to our literature.  It’s a terrific swan song.

Pub Date: June 12, 2000

ISBN: 0-7432-0200-7

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2000

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ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH

While a few weeks ago it seemed as if Praeger would have a two month lead over Dutton in their presentation of this Soviet best seller, both the "authorized" edition (Dutton's) and the "unauthorized" (Praeger's) will appear almost simultaneously. There has been considerable advance attention on what appears to be as much of a publishing cause celebre here as the original appearance of the book in Russia. Without entering into the scrimmage, or dismissing it as a plague on both your houses, we will limit ourselves to a few facts. Royalties from the "unauthorized" edition will go to the International Rescue Committee; Dutton with their contracted edition is adhering to copyright conventions. The Praeger edition has two translators and one of them is the translator of Doctor Zhivago Dutton's translator, Ralph Parker, has been stigmatized by Praeger as "an apologist for the Soviet regime". To the untutored eye, the Dutton translation seems a little more literary, the Praeger perhaps closer to the rather primitive style of the original. The book itself is an account of one day in the three thousand six hundred and fifty three days of the sentence to be served by a carpenter, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. (Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner.) From the unrelenting cold without, to the conditions within, from the bathhouse to the latrine to the cells where survival for more than two weeks is impossible, this records the hopeless facts of existence as faced by thousands who went on "living like this, with your eyes on the ground". The Dutton edition has an excellent introduction providing an orientation on the political background to its appearance in Russia by Marvin Kalb. All involved in its publication (translators, introducers, etc.) claim for it great "artistic" values which we cannot share, although there is no question of its importance as a political and human document and as significant and tangible evidence of the de-Stalinization program.

Pub Date: June 15, 1963

ISBN: 0451228146

Page Count: 181

Publisher: Praeger

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1963

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A touching family drama that effectively explores the negative impact of stress on fragile relationships.

A WEEK AT THE SHORE

A middle-aged woman returns to her childhood home to care for her ailing father, confronting many painful secrets from her past.

When Mallory Aldiss gets a call from a long-ago boyfriend telling her that her elderly father has been gallivanting around town with a gun in his hand, Mallory decides it’s time to return to the small Rhode Island town that she’s been avoiding for more than a decade. Mallory’s precocious 13-year-old daughter, Joy, is thrilled that she'll get to meet her grandfather at long last, and an aunt, too, and she'll finally see the place where her mother grew up. When they arrive in Bay Bluff, it’s barely a few hours before Mallory bumps into her old flame, Jack, the only man she’s ever really loved. Gone is the rebellious young person she remembers, and in his place stands a compassionate, accomplished adult. As they try to reconnect, Mallory realizes that the same obstacle that pushed them apart decades earlier is still standing in their way: Jack blames Mallory’s father for his mother’s death. No one knows exactly how Jack’s mother died, but Jack thinks a love affair between her and Mallory’s father had something to do with it. As Jack and Mallory chase down answers, Mallory also tries to repair her rocky relationships with her two sisters and determine why her father has always been so hard on her. Told entirely from Mallory’s perspective, the novel has a haunting, nostalgic quality. Despite the complex and overlapping layers to the history of Bay Bluff and its inhabitants, the book at times trudges too slowly through Mallory’s meanderings down Memory Lane. Even so, Delinsky sometimes manages to pick up the pace, and in those moments the beauty and nuance of this complicated family tale shine through. Readers who don’t mind skimming past details that do little to advance the plot may find that the juicier nuggets and realistically rendered human connections are worth the effort.

A touching family drama that effectively explores the negative impact of stress on fragile relationships.

Pub Date: May 19, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-11951-3

Page Count: 416

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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