“And why should I want to write another book?” Joseph Heller, testy, asked. “I moved to the Hamptons so that I could be near the water, walk on the beach at night. I study the waves at high tide. I listen to music. I don’t have a need or reason to write.”
We were table partners at the Elaine Benson Gallery in Bridgehampton, at the annual Steinbeck “Meet the Writers” book signing.
“I’ve had three or four good ideas for books, and I’ve written them all,” Heller said.
Indeed, they were good ideas. I had read his first and most famous novel, Catch-22, six times straight through lying on my military school bunk, each time basking in my personal realizations sparked by that book—that the demented, twisted quasi-military reality I’d endured for six years was, in fact, entirely absurd, and that Heller had articulated the absurdity.
I had read his novels that followed: Something Happened, Good as Gold, the play We Bombed in New Haven, and others. “But I think I liked Picture This best of all,” I told him as in that moment, I had just realized it.
“That’s because it is a book about an idea. It is the idea that is the lead character. “
The story navigates history, from ancient Athens through Holland in the seventeenth century, to the founding of the American empire, all connected by Rembrandt’s painting Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer.
“It’s the painting itself. People take it as satire. I didn’t write it that way.”
I recalled the reviews I had read which panned the book, though I never doubted the book’s greatness. I told Heller that.
“Ah,” he said. I was a younger writer, and a hero-worshipping fan, and he had a reputation for being arch with young aspirants. But he turned to appraise me for the first time. He seemed gratified that I had intuited his novel’s deeper intentions.
Our conversation was interrupted frequently as people lined up to ask Heller to sign copies of his books, especially Catch-22, staked on the table between us. (Of course, I had copies of my own book, Firing Back, a business how-to that few among that literary crowd in attendance were interested in having me sign.)
At some point, my fiancé Barbara came up to the table with a plastic cup of red wine for me, the kind of cheap-yet-drinkable wine ever-present at literary events. At the same time, Heller’s wife, Valerie brought him Scotch in a cut crystal glass. Looking at his glass and indicating my own I asked him, “Does this mean you get special treatment around here?” He answered, “Of course. Why shouldn’t I?”
A young woman stepped up and told him how much she had loved his autobiographical Then and Now, about growing up in Coney Island and his time in the Army Air Corp. She pointed to the photograph of the twenty-year-old Heller on the cover. “You were so handsome back then.”
“What do you mean ‘back then’? I’m damn handsome now,” he said.
Barbara wanted to be introduced and I told Heller that we were going to be married the next day in East Hampton. He smiled and drew from his wallet a one-dollar bill. “Mozel-tov” he said. Barbara asked him to sign the bill. I said he should sign it “Irving Washington,” which was an absurd name from Catch-22, typical of Heller’s humor, in which he put a spin on the revered WASP name of a person by making it into something homey and Yiddish. But he would not do as I asked, instead signing his real name. “You’ll find this more valuable,” he said.
Eventually, all the books that Heller had brought were signed. His fans were disappointed, but I had an idea. Why not get him to sign copies of my book? That seemed the only way for me to move a few copies with that audience.
He said no. I argued that he could write something in my book such as “Not by Joseph Heller.” He seemed to waver when I told him it was the only way to sell my books. But then turned me down. “What’s in it for me?” he said.
I raised the question again of a new book, and why he should write it. “You have people waiting for a new Joseph Heller,” I told him.
“Yes. So, I should write a book because people demand it?” Then he hesitated. “Well,” he said,” I am working on something. I can’t say what it is, whether it’s even a good idea. And maybe I’m writing it only because people want me to write it.”
One year later, at the Steinbeck “Meet the Writers,” Heller and I were back, but not tablemates this time. “I don’t know if you remember me,” I said when I reached the front of his autograph line.
“Of course, I do,” he said. “And I wrote a new book like I promised. It will be out next year.”
It was Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man.
“It’s an experiment. I took ideas I’d had for stories and novels and wove them together. They’re all connected, I think. I’ve got a section in it called ‘The Sexual Biography of My Wife’. I’m not sure whether she’s comfortable with that,” he said. “But at least I had fun reading it to her. “No,” he said as if answering a question I had not asked. “It wasn’t a vanity project.”
The novel depicts an aging author, Eugene Pota, a prominent writer trying to produce a novel from bits and pieces that is as successful as his earlier work. He knows it is his last large piece of fiction and hopes against hope it is a magnum opus.
It was published posthumously in 2000. It is not a major work. Its loose parts of beginnings and endings have little energy of the familiar, Heller kind. At its end, we leave the narrator at a loss, the unknotted fabric of a longer story in his hands. Was it only a book written to satisfy his fans, readers like me?
I think about Charles Ives, how one day he came to his wife, tears in his eyes, to tell her that he could no long compose music. The notes didn’t align, the sounds were hollow. And from then on, he set himself to revise old projects. He got on with his insurance business.
Sandy McIntosh is publisher of Marsh Hawk Press. His two recent memoirs, A Hole in the Ocean: A Hamptons’ Apprenticeship and Lesser Lights: More Tales From a Hamptons’ Apprenticeship feature stories of the writers and artists of the Hamptons with whom he enjoyed informal but deeply meaningful apprenticeships.