by Joseph Heller.
Knopf. 569 pp. $10.00.
The famous hero of Joseph Heller's spectacularly successful first novel (Catch-22 has sold eight million copies in the thirteen years it took Heller to write this second novel) is residing today in the suburbs of Connecticut. Bombardier Yossarian got away alive, having survived the efforts of his commanding officers to have him killed in combat. Perhaps World War II ended in time, perhaps he deserted to Sweden and sneaked home. Heller doesn't say, neither does Yossarian. Anyway, the years have changed him. He still doesn't want to die, violently or otherwise. But besides his getting older and slower, marrying and fathering, going to work for a corporation, commuting, and committing lukewarm adultery, something not-so-expected has happened in peacetime: Yossarian feels like he is living in hell, and he will be damned if he doesn't remember the air corps nostalgically.
For some reason, Heller has Yossarian living under an assumed name (is the Justice Department still looking for World War II deserters?). “Bob Slocum” has a Waspish sound to it, and that is not unintentional. Continually, Slocum describes himself as a WASP, complete with foreskin and garters, although, characteristically, he takes no pride or strength from this identity and goes to church (Unitarian) only to sneer. This seems odd—not because Yossarian was really Armenian by extraction (the cast in Catch-22 were Punch-and-Judy puppets with ranks and last names, without origins, and Yossarian was Everyman)—but on account of the fact that Slocum in his long-winded first-person complaint, not to mention his style of thinking and expression, sounds rather Jewish:
I've got bad feet. I've got a jawbone that's deteriorating and someday soon I'm going to have to have all my teeth pulled. It will hurt. I've got an unhappy wife to support and two unhappy children to take care of. (I've got that other child with irremediable brain damage who is neither happy nor unhappy, and I don't know what will happen to him after we're dead.) I've got eight unhappy people working for me who have problems and unhappy dependents of their own. I've got anxiety. I suppress hysteria. I've got politics on my mind, summer race riots, drugs, violence, and teen-age sex. There are perverts and deviates everywhere who might corrupt or strangle any one of my children. I've got crime in my streets. I've got old age to face. My boy, though only nine, is already worried because he does not know what he wants to be when he grows up. My daughter tells lies. . . .
On and on in this vein of self-absorption (Something Happened is nothing if not repetitive, as compulsively repetitive as a patient on a couch). The telltale facts and details accumulate. Slocum plays golf with his boss, hating the dumb game. Slocum's normal son is timorous and thoughtful and will grow up to be Woody Allen unless he's careful. Slocum hates his wife, yet fantasizes he is with her when he is with some girl in the city. Slocum is falsely modest when he declares, “I know so many people I want to be mean to, but I just don't have the character.” The Slocums moved from Manhattan because, among other things, Puerto Ricans swiped the son's bicycle. The Slocum daughter is very intelligent, neglects her schoolwork, threatens to go off with Black Panthers. At the dinner table she and her father have dialogues, verbally hyper-alert, spiritually punishing, that go around in circles, never getting anywhere. Slocum's surly maid/cook hails from Jamaica, because Slocum is too guilty and afraid to hire an American black.
It might have been comic to put a Jew in a Gentile's skin; Heller hardly broaches such a theme, let alone works it out. However, the pretense that Slocum is a WASP does not come across as a very important evasion on Heller's part. The evasion seems gratuitous, and the reader's inclination, after first being puzzled, is to let it pass. It is not a big enough lie to account for the fact that Something Happened. is a lump compared with Catch-22.
Both novels resemble great stone-like objects, slabs of uniform consistency that may be cut up without disturbing the essence. One reason for this is that both come out of a terrible, indeed a heroic, simplifying urge, a monomania that can only elaborate more variations, illustrations of itself. Both in Catch-22 and Something Happened, the terms of the hero's plight are circular, solipsistic, and the novelist is prepared to demonstrate the logic of it until Doomsday (which will never dawn). Both Yos-sarian and Slocum are stuck in an eternal present time that never changes or holds out prospects of ending, except in death: everything except death repeats itself; the fear of death especially repeats itself. Yet Catch-22 was buoyant, Something Happened sinks. Catch-22, a perfectly serious comic novel with a point to drive home, was loaded with belly laughs; Something Happened, also serious and with a lesson to teach that is not all that different, provides at most five natural laughs in more than five hundred pages. It is an unrelievedly dreary book—perhaps only a comedian when he isn't cracking jokes could be as dreary. Slocum is given to making mirthless puns and comments on his own complaints, following these up immediately with an indicative, crippling, parenthetical “(ha-ha).” It would be wrong to say that in transforming himself into Slocum, in the process of losing teeth and hair and gaining weight, Yossarian has lost his sense of humor: after all, Yossarian was scared stiff and dead serious all the time, and never spoke directly to the reader (he was Heller's creature); Slocum buttonholes the reader and doesn't let go (there may be questions where the dividing line is between him and the novelist). Better say that the sense of humor that vitalized Catch-22 has been reduced, pinched down, into a small solitary nerve of dreary irony.
Slocum doesn't even believe that his youthful days before “something happened” were really bright and promising, come to think of it. As Yossarian kept flashing back to that primal, piteous scene in the B-25 where his mortally wounded comrade, Snowden, whimpered in his arms, so Slocum keeps thinking back, with impacted self-pity and regret, to the sweetly hot, teasing, slightly older girl in the insurance office where he worked after graduating from high school, whom he could never bring himself to “go all the way” with. (Her name: Virginia Markowitz. The reader is also made to know that Jack Green, Slocum's much-hated present-day boss in the corporation, is Jewish.) Returning from military service resplendent in a man's uniform and “Mediterranean tan,” eager to finish the job finally, Slocum learned that Virginia had committed suicide.
He is almost as regretful about his youth as a woman in menopause. This might have been funny, touching, or terrifying; if it isn't, part of the problem may be timing. Slocum is a late entry in that line of middle-aged Jews like Saul Bellow's Herzog and Bruce Jay Friedman's Stern who made their mock-triumphant appearance a decade ago, but Slocum's predicament doesn't stir compassion (as half-wise Herzog's did) or pick at a nerve of what the publishers' PR men used to call “Black Humor.” The essential dreariness of Something Happened can best be compared to the feel of another novel of the early 60's, Philip Roth's Letting Go, that catalogue of contemporary misery every entry of which the writer rubbed his reader's face into. If anything, Something Happened is more thoroughly dismal than Letting Go, for Heller is hopeless where Roth is mean, with the result that Something Happened may have arrived as the late epitome of a type of bygone work. It was so long gestating that it is impossible, for example, . to know how old Slocum is supposed to be. If he was in the war, he must be around fifty-four, but other evidence suggests he is forty-one. Somewhere, half a generation is missing, or was telescoped. Heller obviously thinks his novels out. He could not have been unaware of this disjunction. To put an Eisenhower-era “Organization Man,” tense and frustrated with the troubles sociologists like William A. Whyte described back in those fat days (the new commandments to commune and cooperate riddling the old ethic of struggle and save), into the liberated vibrating 70's is a gamble, more grueling than most novelists are willing to take now or readers are ready to pay attention to unless they are entertained. It is hard to imagine this novel enjoying the popular success Catch-22 did. The odds-on chances are that Slocum's name will never be scrawled fondly in the latrines at Prudential Life and Time, Inc. as Yossarian's has been from Berkeley to Fort Dix. For one thing, he is too gloomy. “It's so much sweeter when you're young, so much hotter,” he complains, “so much more fun.”
Brooding on that missed opportunity to achieve harmless happiness, Slocum tells himself that it was better for Virginia Markowitz to die young, for now she would be facing menopause and no doubt would be “a pest.” Pleasure or good or relief is never considered in Something Happened but that Slocum's irony undercuts it, and this has the effect, not of adding complexity, but of emphasizing simplicity: the terribly simple, hellish notion that everything is excrement. This may seem an extreme departure from the bundle of life-affirming verities that Heller crammed hilariously into his readers' head in the first novel: i.e., that in an insane world (ours) the only way out a sane man has is to try to save his skin, harm no one, fornicate like the devil. Yossarian got joy from the Italian whores. But these luscious hunks often teased, disappointed, and betrayed him, too, leaving him high and dry. There was a strain of sadism hinting at an ultimate disbelief in all possibility of good or grace in Catch-22: at the end, it was revealed that everyone, beautiful girls included, “worked for Milo” (Milo Minderbinder, war profiteer). If Yossarian was about to make a drastic choice for life, fleeing to peaceful Sweden to sire a brood of little Yossarians, one could wish him luck, suspecting, with his creator's implicit encouragement, that elsewhere his troubles would just change shape.
The seed planted in Catch-22 has come to bloom in Something Happened. Although it is doubtful that eight million readers really took this to heart, Heller's easily-interpreted real message in 1961, not unconnected to his experiences in World War II, was that everything eventually stinks, albeit with hysterical and sensual consolations. His clear message now, possibly drawing on his memories of slaving in a Manhattan office in the 50's, is that life is absolutely rotten and apparent consolations are tricks. As it turns out, not the war or the army was at fault, but modern life is the villain—in short, life—and people are its agents. The corporation takes the place of the somewhat allegorical bomber squadron, the executives are the ground officers, the salesmen the fliers, liable to heart attack, breakdown, and suicide instead of flak. Catch-22 was a nightmare that it was theoretically possible to wake up from (on V-E Day?); Something Happened chronicles wide-awake reality through Slocum. Here is life—smell it, the book is saying. Here are people—aren't they vile? Insanity is institutionalized as if hell were mundane, and nothing extraordinary or allegorical about it. Things are what they seem, neither heightened for effect nor symbolized. Now there is no hope even, for this ordinary state of war will never end—“I hate my neighbor,” Slocum says, “and he hates me.” The way to retain some semblance of a grip now is to make a deal, what Yossarian refused to do but Slocum learns to enjoy, giving better than he gets in the fight to instill fear in colleagues and relations. He is really no schlemiel, Slocum, no loser. So far as Something Happened has a plot, it tells how he overcomes fear sufficiently to assume fully his executive rat-bastard role, exploiting his own paranoia to win profitable promotion instead of cracking up.
The terrible thing about this potentially is that Slocum is a fellow with compassionate, loving urges—particularly toward his normal son. Because these are not developed much, the book seldom generates the quality of everyday terror that Slocum is supposed to be feeling (“the willies”). The quality conveyed is of dreary whining grievance against life's built-in corruption factor. Dreariness, Ingmar Bergman recently told some Swedish journalists in an interview, has its place in art, and that seems right, if he meant that the subject of the work is dreariness and its texture feels simply dreary to the ignorant or impatient. For the last twenty years and for the time being (though maybe not for much longer) ordinary hell-on-earth, for the makers and consumers of Western art-matter, consists of comparative peace and prosperity and the damned passage of time (Slocum's situation in a nutshell). But something extra must make that record of dreariness luminous or dreadful (for actually madness lurks) or it will not be worth a lot—it will not be much more than complaining.
Voicing complaints, Slocum sounds more like Heller's mouthpiece, like a troubled, interesting middle-aged male creature of our times from whom Heller must maintain a certain artistic detachment but doesn't. Lately this confusion between creator and creature has become common in novels by American Jews, the failing less flagrant here than in Portnoy's Complaint or Erica Jong's Fear of Flying. Typically, life stands accused. Slocum says terrible things about it (in D. H. Lawrence's formulation, he does dirt on it), but for all his unusual command of the language (Heller knows words, and Slocum uses them precisely), these accusations come out dreary not shocking, only occasionally very shrewd and cruel:
She [Slocum's daughter] will experiment with pep pills (ups), barbiturates (downs), mescaline, and LSD, if LSD remains in vogue; she will have group sex (at least once), homosexual sex (at least once, and at least once more with a male present as a spectator and participant), be friendly with fags, poets, snobs, nihilists, and megalomaniacs, dress like other girls, have abortions (at least one, or lie and say she did. Just about every young girl I meet these days has had at least one abortion, or claims she did, and feels compelled to boast about it to me), and sleep, for a while, with Negroes, even though she will probably enjoy none of it, and might really not want to do any of it. (She is a strong-minded girl who is far too weak to withstand a popular trend.) If it isn't one type of self-destruction and self-degradation she cultivates for a while, it is certain to be another; and she will emerge, if she is lucky, from this period of wanton profligacy and determined self-expression after two-and-one-half to four-and-two-thirds years feeling tense, worthless, spent, and remorseful, having searched everywhere and found nothing, with no ego at all, and pine for just one good, stable, interesting man to marry (like myself) and live happily ever after with. She will wish she had children. (She won't find that one man she wants, of course, because we're not that good.) I hope she stays away from addictive drugs so that she will be able to come out of it when she decides she wants to. I hope she doesn't get pregnant and have to have that abortion. I hope she doesn't insist on telling me about any of it.
This is like a white noise or hum, the sound an analysand emits. Throughout, the style Heller gives Slocum is ideally suited to the purpose of low-grade complaint, un-suited to the more difficult purpose of evoking terror or accusing God. My soul is weary of my life. . . . Slocum isn't Job by a long shot, he isn't even marked by that residue of Congregationalism that Cheever's or Updike's authentic WASP suburban sufferers wear like a whimsical nimbus while they learn to be satisfied with crabgrass and good whiskey. Slocum's suffering, real enough no doubt, is an overgrown boy's, not a man's. The long ingrown parentheses on every page are the perfect scheme for handling his adolescent irony, the natural expression of the Diaspora mind-set.
Heller evades the implications that these parenthetical twists put on an ordinary, widespread, recognizable kind of complaining. It isn't necessary to be Jewish to be a middle-aged American man, baffled, bored, bitter, and jumpy, getting cancer in your corporation job. American life and literature, Gentile and Jewish, are populated with boy-men who were young draftees in World War II, couldn't wait to get back to the States, and now, more and more as years go by, look back on the war as the best time of their lives, not so much because they were young then, but because it was the only half-way adventurous and morally justifiable thing they have ever participated in. They are likely to embrace hypochondria, flirt with paranoia. At some level of consciousness they will become suspicious that the world is entropic, or at least that it no longer has a decent place for them. Like Slocum, they will come to doubt the possibility of being a husband, a father, a provider, an adulterer—a man. They will feel cheated: Where did life turn from promising to drab to hellish, and whose fault is it? If “Slocum” is Jewish, it is not his predicament that shows it, nor even the fact that he is incapable of murder, divorce, or abandonment of his family and flight to Tahiti with a hippie chick. The tip-off is his language, those ironical, hairsplitting asides that find a dark lining to every cloud. It could not have been easy to incorporate them without breaking the monotonous droning flow, but Heller did it. This is his technical achievement.
It more than makes up for that little ethnic evasion. The really important evasion in this book is from the implications of the “idiot child,” Derek (the sort of name Jews give their sons today). “. . . We do not love him,” says Slocum, “at all (we would prefer not to think about him . . .).” If Slocum is what Yossarian survived to be, does that imply that the wages of pacifism and fornication are hell on earth? Can a pacifistic fornicator cope with having a brain-damaged son when God or chance deals him one? Highly charged moralistic questions, obviously suggested, but hardly engaged, in Something Happened, perhaps due to a failure of nerve or intelligence, perhaps because a full consideration would have made things just too complicated (for a novelist of genius, whom it is not unfair to wish for, Derek would have been heaven-sent). Above all, Something Happened was meant to be simple, and it is, so Heller ought to be credited with another achievement, which is roughly artistic. By having Slocum sell out 100 per cent, Heller was faithful right to the end to the main idea of Something Happened, and thanks to this the book is finally more coherent and even more of a simple piece than Catch-22 was. It is a novel fashioned in cold blood—a cold stone of a book, braver than most, braver than Catch-22, not brave enough. Captain Yossarian only made up his mind to desert when the Allies had obviously won the war and were mopping up the Hitlerites—he made sure to explain this, rather defensively, to his comrades-in-arms who were staying. Heller had no choice but to put these words in his mouth, or risk writing a truly monstrous book. Yossarian's farewell speech did not ring true; it was a “cop-out,” the half-hearted gesture of the author in the direction of liberal pieties that he was either afraid or not yet willing to renounce completely, the way, for example, Céline did. By comparison, although there may well be something jejune, even sinful, in the simplicity of Heller's vision in this second book, there is little doubt that his success in cleaving to it for all these years and pages gives Something Happened a sort of heroic, massive integrity so dense the book sinks under its weight.