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Authors: Tracy Daugherty

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BOOK: Just One Catch
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The tilt away from the excesses of the 1960s toward conservatism in the early to mid-1970s was not as straightforward or simplistic as it is sometimes painted. George McGovern's crushing electoral defeat, a few years after the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., seemed to signal the end of the liberal political agenda. On the other hand, as Abe Peck points out, from “December, 1972, to April, 1975, alone, DDT was banned, abortions were legalized, the draft ended, U.S. troops finally left Vietnam, the American Psychiatric Association ‘de-diseased' homosexuality, and draconian sentences for smoking plants were reduced. The safe-energy movement began … [and] Richard Nixon resigned.”

By and large, the underground press, advocating for these changes, dissipated as much from a sense of mission accomplished as from persecution by the FBI. Many young people sought corporate positions, feeling not defeat or lack of choice, but glimmers of possibility: American business seemed to have become more enlightened.

Perhaps most important, Kurt Vonnegut's observation that the World War II generation was now “hideously tired” could be extended to cover most adults buffeted by cultural tumults. National emergencies had reached such a pitch, they threatened the U.S. presidency. With Nixon gone and the gray-flanneled Mr. Ford at the helm, perhaps everyone could settle down now, especially with so much talk about an energy crisis.

Something Happened
tapped into national exhaustion. Reaching back to 1966, it seemed as prophetic about post-Vietnam America as
Catch-22
had seemed about the rock-and-roll war years.

On publicity tours for the book, Joe projected seriousness and thoughtfulness. His demeanor suggested he sat “on top of the world”; his “whole manner gives the promise of further important books to come,” said one journalist. For
The Paris Review,
Joe told George Plimpton, “If I thought I might never get another idea for a novel … I don't think it would distress me. I've got two books under my belt now. I would be content to consider that a lifetime's work, and I could just putter around and find other things to do. I've been very lucky. I've written two books that were unusual and unusually successful.”

This sunniness was belied by confessions that he worried when too much time passed with no word from his publisher. He had dreamed up dozens of opening lines for another novel, but none of them was any good, and he feared the American public would soon grow too distracted by technological gadgetry to keep reading fiction.

Shirley was a silent presence during many of Joe's interviews, sitting beside him demurely as journalists pulled pencil and paper from briefcases or fiddled with tape recorders. In the middle of an interview at Harvard in October 1974, Joe listed fears he'd had about events—newspaper strikes, a new war—that might limit his public exposure. Shirley squirmed. Joe turned to her. “What? You're not worried about any of this?” he asked. She said she'd now like to see Harvard Yard. Dolores Karl says Shirley hated
Something Happened.
She felt it was too autobiographical. She was embarrassed and disconcerted by the portrait of a narcissistic, fretful man whose love for his wife and children is balanced by equal bouts of revulsion, and who engages in serial adultery to take the edge off his fears of failure.

Later, Mel Brooks would say to Joe, “If [your family] can live through [
Something Happened
], they can live through anything.” Joe replied, “Oy, what we went through with that!”

Whenever an interviewer asked Shirley about the book, her face became a mask. “I … can't believe it's finally out,” she'd say.

*   *   *

IN PLATO'S
Phaedrus,
Socrates says the purpose of language is “to put to test” our deepest beliefs. With words, we arrive at self-knowledge and “care of the soul.” Socrates claims to know little; he challenges others, hoping to expose shallow values and to shame people into admitting ignorance.
Something Happened
submits the reader to a series of Socratic challenges regarding American ideals: love of country, family, material success.

Bob Slocum sees himself engaging in “brisk, Socratic dialogues” with his son. “I am Socrates, he is the pupil. (Or so it seems, until I review some of our conversations when I am alone, and then it often seems that
he
is Socrates),” Slocum says. In an essay on the rhetoric in
Something Happened,
Andre Furlani says Slocum does not hope to improve others with his questions: He seeks to draw them into paralysis. He is not genuinely interested in answers; his questions hide fears of results he does not want to face. Rather than a “test” serving “the soul,” language, for Slocum, is a game in which the aim is to “outfox” everyone. It is meant to conceal his desires.

In fierce, painful exchanges, his daughter attempts to challenge him. But she is a child and cannot compete with his knowledge and ease with words. Smugly, Slocum watches as the “composure with which she entered [an argument with him] crumbles away into terrified misgivings and she is left, at last, standing mute and foolishly before me, shivering and exhausted, bereft of all her former confidence and determination. (I can outfox her every time.)”

Slocum knows he should take no pleasure in verbally abusing his child. “Why must I win this argument?… Why must I show off for her and myself and exult in my fine logic and more expert command of language and details—in a battle of wits with a fifteen-year-old?” he asks. “I could just as easily say, ‘You're right. I'm sorry. Please forgive me.' Even though I'm right and not really sorry. I could say so anyway. But I can't. And I am winning … I am a shit. But at least I am a successful one.”

Slocum cares more for his son than for his daughter. He sees himself in his boy, who does not rival him directly. The son is truly a Socrates figure, presenting an innocent face. At one point, Slocum sneaks behind the boy's back; he speaks to the physical education teacher at school, hoping to help the boy become more competitive at sports. Later, the son says to Slocum, “You didn't tell me that you went to see him.” Slocum replies, “How did you find out?… Who told you?” His son says, “You told me. Just now. By answering me.”

Ultimately, the boy's nonchallenges penetrate his father's psychic defenses. Caught in his own word traps, Slocum devolves into mild madness. The boy withdraws from him, disturbed by the ferocity with which Slocum attacks the daughter. Slocum recalls his father's disappearance when he was a child, and feels similarly betrayed by his boy. As Furlani says, the “son is a Socrates whom the father feels compelled to kill … [just like] the philosopher [was] fated to die, indeed condemned to death [by his society], because his presence ultimately [was] too sharp a goad.”

The something that happened to Slocum was primal loss followed by conformity, as though the loss had never occurred. Now he witnesses this socialization process swamping his children. It is too late to save his daughter, but he believes he can rescue his boy by freezing him in time before the boy changes too much, inflicting on Slocum another irrecoverable loss. The mad logic of this is so pure, so embedded in life's yeses and noes, it becomes an emotional Catch-22: loss as the method of stopping further loss.

Slocum shows “signs that, I believe, are clinical symptoms of psychosis or schizophrenia,” Joe said of his main character. “[H]e's saying, ‘There's somebody inside me who wants to do these things I'm ashamed of. I'm too nice a guy to do this.' Then he has to create a third [personality], to supervise the other two. Then a fourth one that's watching everything.… What I'm trying to do is set up a process of alienation from oneself.” Joe felt he had achieved alienation through point of view. “The first and third person are fused in a way I've never seen before, and time is compressed into almost a solid substance,” he said. In the narration, there is a vast emotional distance between the observing and acting selves (conveyed by long, qualifying parenthetical asides), and yet there is very little temporal space between them:

My memory's failing, my bladder is weak, my arches are falling, my tonsils and adenoids are gone … and now my little boy wants to cast me away and leave me behind for reasons he won't give me. What else will I have? My job? When I am fifty-five, I will have nothing more to look forward to than … reaching sixty-five. When I am sixty-five, I will have nothing more to look forward to than reaching seventy-five, or dying before then.…

Oh, my father—why have you done this to me?

I want him back.

I want my little boy back too.

I don't want to lose him.

I do.

“Something happened!” a youth in his early teens calls excitedly to a friend and goes running ahead to look.

A crowd is collecting at the shopping center.… A plate glass window has been smashed. My boy is lying on the ground.… He is panic-stricken. So am I.

“Daddy!”

He is dying.… I can't stand it. He can't stand it.… I hug him tightly with both my arms. I squeeze.

Slocum is a “disorganized personality,” Joe explained, “a personality that can't be integrated in a way that the healthiest of personalities should be.… [M]ore and more people I know about [are] having trouble [with this].… It's becoming harder and harder for people to achieve in their work, to [hang on to] a personal sense of identity.” But Slocum masks himself and pushes ahead. At the end, he is able to say, “Everyone seems pleased with the way I've taken command.” He becomes a true American success story.

*   *   *

“AN UNPRECEDENTED
COMBINATION
of inflation and recession made 1974 a uniquely difficult year for the economy at home and abroad,” said RCA's
Annual Report, 1974.
“Whipsawed by these forces, the company's net profit declined by 38 per cent to $113.3 million.” In typically masked language, the writer of the report followed this gloomy news with a vague assertion that “hopeful signs” indicated “renewed strength and purpose ahead.”

Among RCA's holdings in 1974 were the NBC television network, RCA Records, Banquet Frozen Foods, and Alfred A. Knopf (a division of Random House). In the report's glossy pages, along with a photograph of the singer John Denver sitting with the president of RCA Records and one of Freddie Prinze of the TV show
Chico and the Man,
is a picture of Joe with Random House president Robert L. Bernstein and Bob Gottlieb. Bernstein stands tall over the other two, talking down to them. “Novelist Joseph Heller['s] …
Something Happened
is a major bestseller,” reads the caption next to the photo. Largely on the back of Joe's novel, the publishing division (Random House, Pantheon, and Knopf) “increased its sales by 25 per cent to a new high,” despite the adverse effects of “industry-wide inflationary costs.” Unfortunately, the report says, a new accounting method will mean an overall “loss position” for the publishing division this year. Happily, these losses were offset by the successes of the “other products and services” lumped in with books, particularly the “inspiring performance” of “edible oils … [and the] Man Pleaser [frozen] Dinners, which offer larger portions of fried chicken, turkey, Salisbury steak, and meat loaf.”

*   *   *

WILLIAM JAMES
wrote, “[T]he exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS is our national disease.” Joe had read this quote in a piece by Norman Podhoretz, the editor of
Commentary.
Podhoretz liked to cite James in order to dispute him. He believed America had a “dirty little secret”: Ambition for affluence and fame had replaced “erotic lust” as the prime hunger of the “well-educated American soul.” For Podhoretz, this was a perfectly fine state of affairs.

Certainly, the success of
Something Happened
suited Joe. He quit teaching at City College. He bought a summer house in the Amagansett dunes—“nothing special,” Erica says. One day, Joe asked the architect Charles Gwathmey to look at the house. He had met the man through Speed Vogel, and he hoped Gwathmey might suggest ways “to make [the house] a bit more presentable.” Gwathmey “shrugged his shoulders, squinting into the sun,” Erica recalls. “‘Gut it,' he said, got into his black car and drove away.” (Some time later, Gwathmey visited the Hellers at the Apthorp; he strolled around the courtyard with Shirley, who asked him what changes he'd make to the building. “Gut it,” he said.)

Joe loved the Amagansett place. He enjoyed tanning on the sundeck while drinking French-roast coffee, eating Jarlsberg cheese, and reading. He went for a daily run to try to get his weight back down. Sometimes in the evenings, a soft fog rose from the sea.

The small living room, painted white, was brightened by three Matisse lithographs Shirley had bought. Joe played Mozart or Wagner on the stereo system. Ted missed summering at Fair Harbor or Seaview, communities on Fire Island, cozier, calmer spots—but change, whether or not for the better, was the price of success.

In the city, “Elaine's had become the ‘in' place … because of all the famous writers and … movie stars who frequented the place,” said novelist Winston Groom. In fact, Joe had been a regular at the restaurant for years, but its glamour was growing along with the stature of its patrons. Groom recalled one evening in the mid-1970s when a reporter from a Kansas City newspaper showed up to do a piece on New York glitterati. Elaine would not let him approach her elite customers. She sat him in a corner—
they
could approach
him,
if they wished. Mailer was there, along with Joe, William Styron, Irwin Shaw, Woody Allen, and Diane Keaton. At one point, “Barbra Streisand swept through the door, wearing some kind of sequined gown that made her look like she had been set on fire,” Groom said. No one spoke to the reporter.

BOOK: Just One Catch
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