Who the hell wants to read a novel about a writer?
Just about every writer tackles it—once, twice, maybe a dozen times or so. Maybe it's the urge toward autobiography, maybe it's an attempt to romanticize the craft, or to demystify or add some sort of blue-collar legitimacy to it; maybe it's the one final belch once the ideas have run out. I don't know. And I don't want to call it masturbation, I don't—because some day I might be staring at a blank page, chanting, in the back of my mind, "Write what you know, write what you know, write what you know. . ." and end up with my protagonist hacking away at an old Underwood—but the parallels are hard to ignore. The self-gratification (in the form of "Look, the hero is just like me"), the lack of effort (Research? What research?), the social stigma attached—yeah, so I'm stretching the point. The point is, Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man, this final novel by Joseph Heller, completed shortly before his death in 1999, is whatever it is (worthwhile or not, readable or not) due to the fact that it's about a writer, and due to the fact that it was written by the man who wrote Catch-22 and Something Happened.
Portrait is the story of Eugene Pota, an aging writer who feels the oncoming pull of mortality, an aging writer who is searching for that one final novel, that proof to all the critics that the whole work of his life is in fact not an appendix to his intensely popular first novel. Pota is now in his third marriage, his current wife on her second. Pota, however, is simply Heller's intentionally transparent rendering of himself. From the novel:
His name was Eugene Pota, because that's what I want it to be, and in ethnic background he was central European or Turk, I guess, and maybe partly or fully Jewish. But none of that enters into it. He had four adult children from the earliest two of his three marriages and they are no more essential to this story than a sudden downpour would be or the sudden effluence of the musky fragrance of honeysuckle or magnolia, whatever . . . . It becomes so much tidier with all of them placed else-where, emancipating all of us from the problems and traits in personality they would have to be given if brought around.
Heller himself was only married twice, and had only two grown children from his prior marriage; yes, he did change a few details in creating Pota. Readers of earlier Heller novels however will recognize lines ("Almost all of his adult life, [Pota] ruminated frequently, . . . he'd had at least two women to enjoy sex with whenever he wanted," for example) that Heller had used in earlier novels to describe semi-autobiographical characters, and obvious clues, such as his sometimes use of "we" to describe Pota and himself ("We, he and I, don't have leisure or patience for a book ponderous with descriptive details of character and place"). Pota is Heller, both are going through a late-life writer's block, and Heller chose to write a book about it (or, actually, his editor suggested he write a book about it, which is detailed in the novel).
Conversations about Pota's block (with his wife, his friends, his editor, his agent, and in his own internal dialogue) make up roughly half of the text of this novel, which, at 224 pages, is itself less than half the size of most of Heller's other works. The balance of the text consists of abortive attempts at novels by Pota (or Heller) concerning, for example, a contemporary story about Tom Sawyer as a lawyer, a book from the point-of-view of God's wife (or Zeus's wife, Hera), and a "sexual biography" of Pota's wife. There are good stories, stories that may have worked as novels, and poor ones. The story concerning a man named Gregg, a man who wakes up as "a sizable brown bug carting around something of a humpbacked hard shell," could have become a very good (if irreverant) short novel. The Hera stories, however, seem a bit forced.
High points of this novel include Heller's dissection of "the literature of despair," delivered in a discussion between Pota and a group of young writers at the University of Southern Carolina, and his "Tom Sawyer, Novelist" chapter, in which Tom tries (and fails) to find a successful writer with which to converse; these reveal a theme of frustration and sincere worry on the part of Heller toward the overall inability of a writer to function in society and in regard to his (or her) own psychology, which solidifies the rest of the text into something more than a selection of interesting pieces.
But, yes, there still is that question: who does want to read a novel about a writer? I guess the answer is, other writers. Or aspiring writers. Or people interested in the writer rather than the story. If you read this novel expecting the story to carry it, you will be disappointed and you will most likely set it aside after two or three chapters. Readers interested in Joseph Heller, however, or in writing, may find a good deal of worth in this work.
Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man
by Joseph Heller
224 pages, Copyright © 2000 by Erica Heller and Theodore M. Heller
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 0-7432-0201-5 (Paperback)