Heller High Water
David Remnick wrote the following, which was published in the Dec. 27, 1999 & Jan. 3, 2000 double issue of The New Yorker.

The Other Heller

The obituaries marking the death of Joseph Heller last week rightly spent acres of space on his masterpiece, "Catch-22," but few of them noted with any emphasis that he was the author of another extraordinary book, "Something Happened." After publishing "Catch-22," in 1961, and after absorbing the blows of dismissive reviews and (initially) modest sales, Heller wasn't at all sure that he would ever write another novel. He had a wife and two small children. He spent his days writing advertising and promotional copy. And he had no ideas for another book. One night, Heller sat out on the deck of a house on Fire Island, terribly worried. But then that magical thing happened. Just as he had "received" the opening lines of "Catch-22" while lying in bed in a West Side apartment ("It was love at first sight..."), new lines came to him: "In the office in which I work, there are five people of whom I am afraid. Each of these five people is afraid of four people (excluding overlaps)."

Heller had read CĂ©line's "Journey to the End of the Night" to help fuel the writing of "Catch-22." For the new book, he leaned on the Beckett trilogy "Molloy," "Malone Dies," and "The Unnameable." But the real process of writing it was far more complicated -- something Heller later talked about as an ineffable combination of listening and experience, followed by years of intense labor. "Something Happened," which was published in 1974, is far darker than the dark comedy of "Catch-22." It is narrated by Bob Slocum, a man in his forties who has lost interest, who sees no way out of his responsibilities, his job, his loveless life. In later years, Heller's public image lightened, partly because he broadened the comedy in his writing, and partly because he didn't take himself terribly seriously. (His best interview was conducted by his friend Mel Brooks.) And yet Heller left behind something unmistakably serious and permanent: two novels -- one of war, one domestic -- unlike any others. He even did what poets do. He added words to the language: Catch-22.

Here's an excerpt from Something Happened:

When friends, relatives, and business acquaintances are stricken with heart attacks now, I never call the hospital or hospital room to find out how they are, because there's always the danger I might find out they are dead. I try not to talk to their wives and children until I've first checked with somebody else who has talked to them and can give me the assurance I want that everything is no worse than before. This sometimes strains relationships (even with my wife, who is always asking everybody how they are and running to hospitals with gifts to visit people who are there), but I don't care. I just don't want to talk to people whose husband or father or wife or mother or child may be dying, even though the dying person himself might be someone I feel deeply attached to. I never want to find out that anybody I know is dead.

One time, though (ha, ha), after someone I knew did die, I braced myself, screwed up my valor, and, feigning ignorance, telephoned the hospital that same day to inquire about his condition. I was curious: I wanted to see what it would feel like to hear the hospital tell me that someone I knew was dead. I wondered how it was done; I was preoccupied and even titillated by this problem of technique. Would they decide he had died, passed away, succumbed, was deceased, or perhaps even had expired? (Like a magazine subscription or an old library card?) The woman on the telephone at the hospital surprised me. She said:

"Mr. _______ is no longer listed as a patient."

It took nerve to make that telephone call, it took all my nerve. And I was trembling like a leaf when I hung up. Certainly, my heart was pounding with great joy and excitement at my narrow escape, for I had fancied from my very first syllable, from the first digit I dialed, that the woman at the hospital knew exactly what I was up to -- that she could see me right through the telephone connection and could see right into my mind -- and would say so. She didn't. She just said what she was instructed to say and let me escape scot-free. (Was it a recorded announcement?) And I have never forgotten that tactful procedure:

"Mr. _______ is no longer listed as a patient."

Mr. _______ was dead. He was no longer among the living. Mr. _______ was no longer listed as a patient, and I had to go to his funeral three days later.