Arts & Entertainment: Sunday, July 2, 2000

“Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man” by Joseph Heller

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

Joseph Heller died in December 1999, at the age of 76, just after finishing this novel, which was presciently designed to be his last.

Heller is, of course, best known for his first novel, “Catch 22,” the wildly successful anti-war novel from the 1960s. He wrote eight subsequent books, but has never matched the critical or commercial success of his first.

Eugene Pota, the subject of “Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man,” is almost 76, best known for his first novel and frustrated by his failure to match its critical or commercial success.

Pota is struggling with ideas for a new novel, which he knows will likely be his last, and he hopes will be his best. “This is a book about a well-known, aging author trying to close out his career with a crowning achievement,” Heller explains in this amusing postmodern exercise about a writer writing the very novel the reader is reading.

Unfortunately, Pota – and Heller – are “without a plot, at a loss for a subject, and have no clear idea what to move on to next.”

So we become privy to the throwaway sentences and concepts that eventually evolve into a novel as Heller details rejected – but eventually used – material.

There are several good, albeit undeveloped, riffs, the best of which features Tom Sawyer on a quest to consult a list of accomplished novelists about a career in writing. He learns that writers are an astonishingly miserable lot: alcoholic, neurotic, obsessive, unsatisfied, cursed with various maladies. Sawyer decides to be a riverboat captain instead.

This is a book I would recommend only to fellow novelists, aspiring novelists or the parents of aspiring novelists.


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