Page 153 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 43

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JOSEPH LOWIN
The Jewish Art ofJoseph Heller
Nothing succeeds as planned.
Every change is fo r the worse.
No want is ever fulfilled.
A bad reputation never hurt anybody.
Everybody's death simplifies life fo r someone.
Always do unto others what is best fo r you.
Everybody is capable o f everything.
I t ’s good to be the king.
T h e r e i s m u c h
wisdom — however contrarian — in the Jewish
fiction of Joseph Heller.1Indeed a whole chapter of a Hellerian
Book of Proverbs might be extracted from
Good as Gold
and
God
Knows,
Heller’s last two novels. Both of these novels deal frankly
and frontally with Jewish themes and somewhat more obliquely
with the idea of a Jewish art.
The astute reader will be disturbed by an incongruity in the
pearls of wisdom strung together above. Obviously, the last
maxim — to the effect that it is good to be the king — does not
belong with the other proverbs listed, uniform in their pessimistic
outlook. And, of course, the astute reader is absolutely right. The
statement of smug self-satisfaction is not pronounced by Joseph
Heller’s King David in his novel
God Knows,
but by Louis XVI, the
1 Joseph Heller has published four novels and one play:
Catch-22,
Simon
8c
Schuster, 1961;
We Bombed in New Haven,
Knopf, 1968;
Something Happened,
Knopf, 1974;
Good as Gold,
Simon
8c
Schuster, 1979; and
God Knows,
Knopf,
1984. In an interview with the author of this essay, Heller confirmed that both
Yossarian of
Catch-22
and Bob Slocum of
Something Happened,
respectively an
Assyrian and a Protestant, are fundamentally and essentially Jewish. He con­
sciously avoided identifying them as Jewish in these novels, he asserted, to
avoid detours on the road he wished to travel. In
Good as Gold
and
God Knows
Heller’s two Jewish novels, the subjects o f this essay — Heller is definitely on a
Jewish road, a road back to Jewish identity and Jewish sources. All references
in the text to
God Knows
are to the Knopf edition (coded
GK);
citations from
Good as Gold
are made from the Pocket Books edition (coded
GG).
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