About the Book"This author was determined," says the apparently autobiographical narrator of Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man. "He often appropriated as his own personal infirmity the concluding words of the unnameable voice in Samuel Beckett's The Unnameable, 'I must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on.'" And on his last day on Earth, Joseph Heller was still polishing this, his last and strangest novel. It is essentially an essay about a writer who's exactly like him--old and stuck for an idea for his next book. Seeking inspiration, he chats with his wife, his editors, and his friends, and floats one high-concept scheme after another.
How about a novel about the gangsters who ran Coney Island, the enchanted land of his childhood? Nah, too much plot to concoct. Perhaps he could update a classic: Tom Sawyer as a Harvard MBA, or Kafka's The Metamorphosis transposed to Manhattan. When these don't pan out, Heller takes a stab at mythology, done in the manner of his old pal Mel Brooks. Here Zeus's wife complains about his flagging ardor: <blockquote> I try to put myself in Leda's place. It could be kind of thrilling, I guess, being overpowered by a huge male swan, especially after realizing it was Zeus.... I'd like to see him take the trouble to surprise me like that, even once. But that doesn't happen. He won't waste tricks like that on me. He never does, he knows he doesn't have to. When he comes to me it's never with anything new, it's always just the same, always just the same old god. </blockquote> Increasingly desperate, the author tries out titles on his friends, and A Sexual Biography of My Wife stirs some interest. Still, his tentative fictions don't grab you the way the novel's sad, searing reminiscences do. When Heller--I mean, the narrator--has a tearful reunion with his adulterous old flame (who's now stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease), or asks another female acquaintance whether she regrets turning down his long-ago offer of romance, we get a privileged glimpse into the private mind of a very public author. "I want to cap my career with a masterpiece of some kind," the narrator tells his editor. This poignantly discursive book is not a masterpiece, but Joseph Heller did go on trying to the end. --Tim Appelo