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Getting to the end


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 23, 2000

But when Portrait of an Artist, As an Old Man was finally published last month, those words took on a more personal meaning. Ironically enough (and with Heller it never was), the novel -- about a famous author trying to write his last book -- turned out to be Heller's own parting shot. The author of Catch-22 died in December at the age of 76 just as Portrait was going to press.

Written with obvious tongue in cheek, Portrait was a gutsy move for Heller. Addressing with surprising frankness how difficult it is to be a successful author nearing the end of a long writing career, the novel obviously cut close to the bone for the author. Not everyone would be willing to bare his soul at such a late date -- and with such great bravura.

Yet the reviews of Portrait have not been kind. Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, comparing it to "such embarrassing Hemingway works as The Garden of Eden and True at First Light," declared it "one of those posthumously published books that form a sad coda to a distinguished career."

"It's not, alas, much of a swan song," declared Alan Cheuse in the Chicago Tribune. "A trifle," sniffed Michael Harris in the Los Angeles Time.

The book was no Catch-22, many reviewers lamented, referring to the author's most popular and critically acclaimed novel, written when Heller was in his mid-30s.

But that, of course, was the whole point of Portrait.

Like Heller, Eugene Pota is an author who wrote a book in his younger days that became a classic -- a triumph that he has never quite been able to match. Now in his twilight years, all he wants to write is a bestseller that would be "a natural for the movies." The topics he tries out are patently absurd -- Tom Sawyer as a yuppie businessman, Kafka's Gregor Samsa as a Wall Street accountant -- but he keeps plugging away. One idea even has a title, A Sexual Biography of My Wife, but, alas, Pota can't get beyond the title page (to the great relief of his wife, by the way).

While clearly poking fun at himself and at the frustrations of aging, Heller also manages in Portrait to seriously examine the challenges of the creative process, especially over time.

"The singular fact about the creation of fiction is that it does turn more, not less, difficult with seasoning and accomplishment -- for proof, study the concluding chapters of the biographies of famous authors -- and then there is still all that cumbersome amount of spare time to spend one way or another if you dare to stop," Heller bravely writes.

Few authors, even phenomenally successful ones, manage to outdo themselves every time, let alone at the end of a long career. Yet most authors don't stop. As Samuel Beckett once wrote, "I can't go on. I go on," a quote, not surprisingly, that Pota appropriates as "his own personal infirmity."

When George V. Higgins, the man who reinvented the crime novel with his 1971 debut The Friends of Eddie Coyle, died suddenly late last year at the age of 59, he left behind an impressive body of critically acclaimed works, including an about-to-be-published novel.

But like Heller, Higgins' final effort was a critical bomb.

"My mother taught me to speak no ill of the dead . . . But even Mom, who was an insatiable mystery reader, would, I think, have had a few choice words about George V. Higgins' posthumously published and sadly disappointing At End of Day," wrote Rod Cockshutt in the News and Observer. "Ultimately, the very stylized voice that brought Higgins fame and fortune for Eddie Coyle brought him down in At End of Day. It is just too much of a good thing," wrote Jean Heller on these pages.

Not all last books, of course, miss the mark. This week Jean Heller in another review of a "last novel" declares Omerta by Mario Puzo "a grand read" (see review below). Puzo, whose novel The Godfather inspired all those gangster movies, died last year at 78.

If we believe Eugene Pota, however, even for Puzo, writing had become a struggle. "Mario Puzo had said more than once in public interviews," he reports, "that he owned the last several years of his life, and his most recent novel, to the ameliorating effects of Prozac."

Puzo is one of many authors Pota includes in a speech he gives on the lecture circuit (to avoid writing, no doubt) called the Literature of Despair. He is not talking about the tormented characters of fiction, he explains, but about authors like himself: "unhappy successful novelists who feel like failures."

Failures? Wouldn't you think that writing a bestselling novel that not only inspired a popular movie directed by Mike Nichols, but whose very title became a new word in the English dictionary, would be enough for a writer like Joseph Heller?

But that, of course, is the Catch-22 of creativity: Nothing is ever enough.

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