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

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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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A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

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THE GLASS HOTEL

A financier's Ponzi scheme unravels to disastrous effect, revealing the unexpected connections among a cast of disparate characters.

How did Vincent Smith fall overboard from a container ship near the coast of Mauritania, fathoms away from her former life as Jonathan Alkaitis' pretend trophy wife? In this long-anticipated follow-up to Station Eleven (2014), Mandel uses Vincent's disappearance to pick through the wreckage of Alkaitis' fraudulent investment scheme, which ripples through hundreds of lives. There's Paul, Vincent's half brother, a composer and addict in recovery; Olivia, an octogenarian painter who invested her retirement savings in Alkaitis' funds; Leon, a former consultant for a shipping company; and a chorus of office workers who enabled Alkaitis and are terrified of facing the consequences. Slowly, Mandel reveals how her characters struggle to align their stations in life with their visions for what they could be. For Vincent, the promise of transformation comes when she's offered a stint with Alkaitis in "the kingdom of money." Here, the rules of reality are different and time expands, allowing her to pursue video art others find pointless. For Alkaitis, reality itself is too much to bear. In his jail cell, he is confronted by the ghosts of his victims and escapes into "the counterlife," a soothing alternate reality in which he avoided punishment. It's in these dreamy sections that Mandel's ideas about guilt and responsibility, wealth and comfort, the real and the imagined, begin to cohere. At its heart, this is a ghost story in which every boundary is blurred, from the moral to the physical. How far will Alkaitis go to deny responsibility for his actions? And how quickly will his wealth corrupt the ambitions of those in proximity to it? In luminous prose, Mandel shows how easy it is to become caught in a web of unintended consequences and how disastrous it can be when such fragile bonds shatter under pressure.

A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

Pub Date: March 24, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-52114-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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THE POET

Connelly takes a break from his Harry Bosch police novels (The Last Coyote, p. 328, etc.) for something even more intense: a reporter's single-minded pursuit of the serial killer who murdered his twin. Even his buddies in the Denver PD thought Sean McEvoy's shooting in the backseat of his car looked like a classic cop suicide, right clown to the motive: his despondency over his failure to clear the murder of a University of Denver student. But as Sean's twin brother, Jack, of the Rocky Mountain News, notices tiny clues that marked Sean's death as murder, his suspicions about the dying message Sean scrawled inside his fogged windshield—"Out of space. Out of time"—alert him to a series of eerily similar killings stretching from Sarasota to Albuquerque. The pattern, Jack realizes, involves two sets of murders: a series of sex killings of children, and then the executions (duly camouflaged as suicides) of the investigating police officers. Armed with what he's dug up, Jack heads off to Washington, to the Law Enforcement Foundation and the FBI. The real fireworks begin as Jack trades his official silence for an inside role in the investigation, only to find himself shut out of both the case and the story. From then on in, Jack, falling hard for Rachel Walling, the FBI agent in charge of the case, rides his Bureau connections like a bucking bronco—even as one William Gladden, a pedophile picked up on a low-level charge in Santa Monica, schemes to make bail before the police can run his prints through the national computer, then waits with sick patience for his chance at his next victim. The long-awaited confrontation between Jack and Gladden comes at an LA video store; but even afterward, Jack's left with devastating questions about the case. Connelly wrings suspense out of every possible aspect of Jack's obsessive hunt for his brother's killer. Prepare to be played like a violin.

Pub Date: Jan. 15, 1996

ISBN: 0-316-15398-2

Page Count: 440

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1995

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