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PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST, AS AN OLD MAN

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

                        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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2000

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A LITTLE LIFE

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

A first novel, this is also a first person account of Scout's (Jean Louise) recall of the years that led to the ending of a mystery, the breaking of her brother Jem's elbow, the death of her father's enemy — and the close of childhood years. A widower, Atticus raises his children with legal dispassion and paternal intelligence, and is ably abetted by Calpurnia, the colored cook, while the Alabama town of Maycomb, in the 1930's, remains aloof to their divergence from its tribal patterns. Scout and Jem, with their summer-time companion, Dill, find their paths free from interference — but not from dangers; their curiosity about the imprisoned Boo, whose miserable past is incorporated in their play, results in a tentative friendliness; their fears of Atticus' lack of distinction is dissipated when he shoots a mad dog; his defense of a Negro accused of raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell, is followed with avid interest and turns the rabble whites against him. Scout is the means of averting an attack on Atticus but when he loses the case it is Boo who saves Jem and Scout by killing Mayella's father when he attempts to murder them. The shadows of a beginning for black-white understanding, the persistent fight that Scout carries on against school, Jem's emergence into adulthood, Calpurnia's quiet power, and all the incidents touching on the children's "growing outward" have an attractive starchiness that keeps this southern picture pert and provocative. There is much advance interest in this book; it has been selected by the Literary Guild and Reader's Digest; it should win many friends.

Pub Date: July 11, 1960

ISBN: 0060935464

Page Count: 323

Publisher: Lippincott

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1960

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