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.