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Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man

A Novel

About The Book

Imagine that the novelist -- his name here is Eugene Pota -- realizes that the days are dwindling and he needs to come up with one more novel. But what should he write? That first novel, the one that launched him, the one that made him into the cultural icon he seems fated to remain, has become a touchstone for his life, and his life since has pretty much been a critical failure. And now, when he is faced with the compulsion to write one more novel, to take a stab at the even bigger one, what should it be?
Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man follows the journey that Eugene Pota undertakes as he sifts through the detritus of his life in an effort to settle on a subject for his final work. He talks to everyone, including his wife, his old lovers, and his editor. While everyone has ideas, no one offers any real answers. Written with sections that alternate between Pota's real-life efforts to settle on what novel to write and his many and various false starts writing that novel, Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man is a rare and enthralling look into the artist's search for creativity.


Chapter One: Tom


No answer.


Still no answer.

"Oh, shit," said Aunt Polly. "Where in the world can that boy be this time, I wonder?"

That boy, Tom Sawyer, was lounging in an armchair up front in the parlor in his new Armani cashmere sport jacket, complacently calculating the overnight appreciation of his stock and bond holdings as he waited for four of his friends to come by in the leased stretch limousine with insolent smoked windows to take them all to the luxury box in the stadium for the big game -- football or basketball, he had forgotten which, perhaps a prizefight. It did not matter to him. What mattered was that he be there. He had bedecked himself in a Turnbull & Asser shirt of aubergine vertical stripes with a gleaming white collar, unbuttoned at the neck. His suspenders were wide and of a red-and-black polka dot. Proudly and deceptively, he had already devised a tricky new riddle to entrap his gullible pals once more into bets of $300 each they were sure they'd win and were certain to lose. He would entice them at the start with an idle observation, as though thinking out loud, the vague surmise "You know, it really is hard for me to accept the fact that -- "

Oh, shit, sighed the elderly author with great regret, and decided to give up on this book too.

Listlessly, he rolled the ballpoint pen away. The last thing he wanted to do now, he told himself, was tax his brain to devise a convincing crafty riddle for the expectations raised in the text in order to move it along; the one he'd had in mind for a start he'd already used before as a bit in an earlier novel, that Reno, Nevada, and Spokane, Washington, were both farther west than Los Angeles. No one might catch the repetition. But he would know, and that single cheat could be enough to engender self-contempt, and then induce him to loaf along in other areas too. It was not worth the effort, he sensed already. This book-length parody of the quintessential American pop novel Tom Sawyer, with a contemporary Tom Sawyer and a law degree from Yale or a master's degree in business administration from Harvard, was definitely not going to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of the world, or his race, whichever. Not now, he reflected with a rueful smile, certainly not this one in what he had already begun thinking of privately, with dismaying irony, as this last portrait in literary form by the artist as an old man. Although that, as always, was never for a minute what he seriously had in mind. And not even James Joyce had succeeded in making that long stretch to metaphysical perfection in his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But this latest gambit, he now judged, was simple, hackneyed satire, affording no space for expanded aesthetic experimentation or for ambivalent domestic conflicts or wrenching tragedies, and of a kind that swarms of gifted newspaper and magazine writers could do in half a day with eight hundred words, while he would need three or four years for his novel and fill four hundred pages.

A lifetime of experience had trained him never to toss away a page he had written, no matter how clumsy, until he had gone over it again for improvement, or had at least stored it in a folder for safekeeping or recorded the words on his computer.

About this one he had no second thoughts. Oh, shit, he softly repeated, murmuring out loud this time, and gently removed the top sheets from his lined yellow pad and crumpled them into his wicker wastebasket. He overcame the urge to lie down for a second morning nap. Sighing again, he reached for a cardigan sweater and scarf and stepped outside his study for a walk to the beach that he hoped might clear his head and leave him wider awake with more mental celerity than he presently commanded. As he shuffled down his driveway in an overtired walk, he spied his wife across the lawn, regarding him from a corner of the house beside a large garden bucket, clutching a watering can with both her hands. He did not need to peer closely to know that her expression would be that familiar one of sympathy and disappointment at this evidence of failure of his newest daily attempt, and perhaps with the momentary disdain that he was experiencing for himself. Her name was Polly -- Polly too; the recurrence in feminine name of the one he had just played with on paper dawned on him for the first time, and then only as a light coincidence. He waved limply, with no emotion, as he passed, forcing something of a smile, and quickened his step until he was at the bottom of the driveway and had turned out of sight on the road. Then he lapsed back into his torpid stroll, almost with a shimmer of relief to consider himself unobserved.

Thirty-five minutes went by before he reached the beach. He was not in a hurry. He heard himself breathing heavily when he arrived, but not excessively so, he hoped, for a man of his years. The wooden bench on which he seated himself to rest was empty. He gazed with intentionally cleared mind at the peaceful scene of sand and water and vacant horizon, waiting for something marvelous to occur to him. He examined with blank eyes the several distant people sauntering along the shore, some with unleashed dogs. Most were women -- he was conscious these days that his attention fixed on the appearance of women more and more often, more than ever before since they started wearing tight-fitting trousers of one sort or another with the outline of their underpants explicitly traced, and miniskirts too -- and these women seemed perceptibly shorter and more heavyset than normal as they trudged along flat-footed through the sand. He seldom noted what men looked like, or cared.

Where, he wondered, had ingenuity gone? He could guess some answers, for himself and for so many of his contemporaries, and for renowned others of similar occupation who now were long gone. In earlier days of youthful mental vigor and stronger drive the dependable literary thoughts and inspirations that vaulted out of nowhere into mind whenever he beckoned for them had seemed inexhaustible. Now he had to ponder and wait. Pondering and waiting, he stared dully at the unfettered flocks of birds in view, the gulls and terns gliding overhead, the sandpipers scurrying along the shore for their meal of worms as the last splashes of surf were sucked back into the sea. He craved almost desperately for the flicker of a vibrant and usable idea to come gliding into his attention from somewhere in an illuminating flash of revelation, from anywhere, like a bird, a beautiful, glittering bird spontaneously on its own, as never had failed to grace him in his more prolific past, an idea fertile with throbbing possibilities that would revitalize the imagination and invigorate his spirit. His mind wandered. His eyes glazed. His head felt heavy and started to droop. He let his lids slither closed. He might even have dozed. He came awake slowly, thinking, his lips moving in a dialogue, and straightened alertly with the feeling his prayers mystically had been answered. He stood up with a start.

His walk back was close to ten minutes quicker. He made directly toward the low wooden building that served as his studio and as sleeping quarters for overnight guests on the rare occasions they invited any. He was breathing more heavily than earlier but paid no attention. Polly, working now with rose clippers and studying him intently, took notice of his brisker walk and purposeful attitude. She smiled appreciatively and responded to his jaunty wave with a beaming reciprocity of delight and optimism. He was perspiring a bit. Inside, he speedily rinsed the body moisture from his neck and face with splashes of cold water from the sink in the bathroom and then hurried to his swivel chair at the desk. Switching his radio on, he took hold of his yellow pad and ballpoint pen. He was aware only dimly that he had been humming the melody to the Caribbean song called "Yellow Bird" until the music welled through on the classical station to which the radio was always tuned. It was by pure good luck the exuberant last movement of the popular Haydn cello concerto. An omen. He was elated.

Copyright © 2000 by Erica Heller and Theodore M. Heller

About The Author

Photo Credit: Jerry Bauer

Joseph Heller was born in Brooklyn in 1923. In 1961, he published Catch-22, which became a bestseller and, in 1970, a film. He went on to write such novels as Good as Gold, God Knows, Picture This, Closing Time, and Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man. Heller died in 1999.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (July 17, 2001)
  • Length: 240 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743202015

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Raves and Reviews

Michael Pakenham The Baltimore Sun A novel of dramatic candor and courage...very entertaining.

Steven Moore The Washington Post Book World A fascinating look at the creative life of one of the most important writers of American postwar literature.

Susan Miron The Miami Herald A hugely enjoyable work -- witty and erudite, tellingly and achingly full of truths about the frustrations of a life devoted to writing.

Melvin Jules Bukiet The Philadelphia Inquirer A tenderly rueful lament about aging and ambition that never dies.

Chicago Sun-Times Warmly engrossing.

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