Joseph Heller’s second novel, published in 1974. I read a first edition hardcover.
3 out of 5 stars.
Bob Slocum, a 1970s upper/middle-class worker, husband, and father, delivers a topic-hopping, paranoid, hateful, sentimental monologue.
Something Happened is a strange book to discuss and often difficult to read. Heller’s effort is admirable but not enjoyable. The 3-star rating I’ve given it is deceptive; at times it hits a 5, at times it struggles to rise above 1.
If you undertake this, understand that you’re dealing with a narrator whose thoughts never travel in a straight line. You will hear the same things again and again from different angles and with different emotional approaches. You will eventually learn more about Slocum and his family, but you will never learn enough to understand or know them. You are seeing everything though Bob’s distortions (and, boy, is he distorted). Something Happened is the ultimate example of an unreliable narrator.
This was my second time reading the book. Knowing where it ends up, I was looking for clues of how we get there. I don’t believe Slocum is always telling us the truth, but I don’t think he knows when he’s lying. His memory is dissolving; by the end, he freely admits that he is imagining, forgetting, and inventing things. Which leads me to believe the major climactic event does not actually happen. Let’s just get into it.
I get the willies
Each section’s title comes from the first line of the section. Slocum never makes much of an attempt to stick with the title topic; he talks about the same things in each section, but his tone reflects the emotion that the subject makes him feel. “The office in which I work” makes him fearful but subservient; “My wife is unhappy” shows frustration; in “My daughter’s unhappy” he shows his rage; “My little boy is having difficulties” makes him sentimental and panicky; “It is not true” (referring to Slocum’s mentally disabled son) makes him hysterically think about anything other than his son.
 Here it is, possibly my favorite opening line in fiction:
I get the willies when I see closed doors.
They approached slowly. Everything took a long time.
 Heller does a frighteningly good job escalating Slocum’s monologue. Something Happens begins in a pedantic, placid style. Five hundred pages later, Slocum is in hysterics. It’s almost subliminal, but Heller is very conscious of what he’s doing. At the start, he gives very few parenthetical asides and has Slocum speak to us in tidy stories with beginnings and ends:
There was so much more I wanted to find out then about him and her on the floor of that shed, but I was never bold enough to ask, even though my brother was normally a mild, helpful person who was very good to me while he was alive.
Near the end of the book, Slocum dissolves into unchecked rambling:
I wish I believed in God. I liked shelled walnuts and raisins at home when I was a child and cracked the walnuts and mixed them all up with the raisins in a dish before I began eating. My mother sent out for ice cream often in the spring and summer. In the fall we had good charlotte russes. I would spin tops. I remember the faces of street cleaners.
We don’t consciously observe Slocum going from Point A to B. Reading Something Happened is like listening to a depressed acquaintance at a party. He starts out claiming that everything is fine but, as both of you get more and more drunk, the facade starts slipping, then outright breaks.
 Like having to address Snowden’s death early in our discussion of Catch-22 (note ), we need to discuss the “death” of Slocum’s boy now. Forgive me, but it’s going to take a while.
On page 562, Slocum tells us that a car hits his boy at a shopping center and, convinced his son is dying, Slocum smothers him as a mercy kill.
I don’t believe it happens. I think Slocum’s reality is combining with fantasy and nightmare. We have seen Slocum suggesting the means and method of his boy’s death into his subconscious from the start:
And when children drown, choke, or are killed by automobiles or trains, I don’t want to know which children they are, because I’m always afraid they might turn out to be mine.
I never want to find out that anyone I know is dead.
I am very good with these techniques of deception, although I am not always able anymore to deceive myself (if I were, I would not know that, would I? Ha, ha).
In my dreams sometimes [my boy] is in mortal danger, and I cannot move quickly enough to save him. My thighs weigh tons. My feet are anchored. He perishes, but the tragedy, in my dreams, is always mine.
I think we will fall apart as a family when [my boy] grows up and moves away. (I love him so much I just know he is going to die.)
I wonder how I would feel about the death of a child.
Warding things off becomes for [my boy] so futile and exhausting an endeavor as to be, at times, possibly just not worthwhile; he would almost sooner give up, stop struggling; it would be so much easier and more sensible, his regretful manner of tired resignation often implies, to simply stop striving, yield, and let the very worst of all those things he foresees overtake, violate, and destroy him, to succumb and once and for all be done. He used to be afraid of weird things rising from beneath his bed. Better to let them all rise up, he may feel now, than to continue waiting constantly for it all to happen to him anyway no matter what precautions are taken, since sooner or later, inevitably, it must, and never feeling safe enough for long to cease listening for mortal disaster’s relentless approach. It comes on footsteps that are almost audible. I think he may feel this way about himself, because I feel this same way about both of us.
(p.220 – 221)
I worry about [my boy] and expect the worst to happen to him also. So does my wife.
Something bad is going to happen to [my boy]. I know that now. I know it will. And something bad is going to happen to me too, because it does happen to him.
(p.230 – 231)
I am often contemptuous of myself for imagining the catastrophes I do.
I am crazy: no wonder my boy tends to be fearful.
Every day that [my boy] and I and the rest of us remain alive is another miracle (…) I don’t trust cars.
“Daddy, I love you!” he exclaims with excitement, and throws his face against my hip to kiss me and hug me. “I hope you never die.” (…)
I love him too and hope that he never dies.
I have the recurring fear that he will die before I do. I cannot let that happen. He is too dear to me.
(p.304 – 305)
I have this constant fear something is going to happen to [my boy]. (…) There are times I wish [my boy and daughter] would both hurry up and get it over with already so I could relax and stop brooding about it in such recurring suspense. There are times I wish everyone I knew would die and release me from these tender tensions I experience in my generous solicitude for them. (…)
I think about death.
I think about it all the time. I dwell on it. I dread it. I don’t really like it. Death runs in my family, it seems. People die from it, and I dream about death and weave ornate fantasies about death endlessly and ironically.
(p.342 – 343)
(My lucid visions bleed together.)
Something terribly tragic is going to happen to my little boy (because I don’t want it to) and nothing at all will happen to Derek. (…) I see no future for my boy (the veil won’t lift, I don’t get a glimmer, I see no future for him at all) and this is always a heart-stopping omen. When I look ahead, he isn’t there. (…) He doesn’t pass nine. He stops here.
I sometimes think I am losing my mind. The fear (and the mind I am losing) does not even seem to be mine.
Real and imagined events overrun each other in my mind in hazy indistinction.
(p.428 – 429)
I don’t want to go crazy. I like to keep tight rein on my reason, thoughts, and actions, and to know always which is which.
Slocum is thinking about his younger son (Derek) here, but it echoes what he supposedly does to his other boy (we are never told his name, by the way):
Is this schizophrenia, or merely a normal, natural, typical, wholesome, logical, universal schizoid formation? (I could plead temporary insanity. They would call it a mercy killing. There would be testimony under oath that it was done to put him out of his misery. He isn’t miserable.)
After all the paranoia about the safety of his boy, Slocum develops a new fear when his son begins to draw away from him (the second-to-last section, the one in which his boy “dies” is titled My boy has stopped talking to me). I believe the death may be Slocum’s way of making an excuse for why his boy is no longer in his life.
I miss my boy now too. He is pulling away from me.
I am still affronted that my daughter always keeps the door to her room shut when she’s inside. My boy does that too, now.
My boy has stopped talking to me, and I don’t think I can stand it. (He doesn’t seem to like me.)
He is moving away from me and I don’t want him to. He is shutting me out.
My memory does get faulty of late, merges indistinguishably with imagination, and I must make efforts to shake them apart.
I see things that aren’t there.
No wonder I am more and more prey to weird visions and experiences. (Some tickle my fancy. Some do not.)
The day before yesterday, I walked into a luncheonette for a rare roast beef sandwich on a seeded roll and thought I found my barber working behind the counter.
“What are you doing in a luncheonette?” I asked.
“I’m not your barber,” he answered.
I was afraid I was losing my mind.
A week ago I looked out a taxi window and saw Jack Green begging in the street in the rain, dressed in a long wet overcoat and ragged shoes. He was a head taller, thinner, pale, and gaunt. It wasn’t him. But that’s what I saw.
I was afraid I was losing my wits.
Yesterday I looked out the window of a bus and thought I saw Charlie Chaplin strolling along the avenue and believed I knew him. It wasn’t Charlie Chaplin and I didn’t know him.
My memory may be starting to fail me.
My boy will probably perish without me.
I don’t want him to go (…) My little boy wants to cast me away and leave me behind for reasons he won’t give me.
So here, finally is the death scene. The tone is different from anything else in the book and it has the strange logic found in nightmares, not reality. Why would Slocum be at the same shopping center as his boy but not, apparently, with him? Why doesn’t anyone else intervene or get involved? Would any doctor say something as absurd as “Even his spleen was intact”?
I want my little boy back too.
I don’t want to lose him.
“Something happened!” a youth in his early teens calls excitedly to a friend and goes running ahead to look.
A crowd is collecting at the shopping center. A car has gone out of control and mounted the sidewalk. A plate glass window has been smashed. My boy is lying on the ground. (He has not been decapitated.) He is screaming in agony and horror, with legs and arms twisted brokenly and streams of blood spurting from holes in his face and head and pouring down over one hand from inside a sleeve. He spies me with a start and extends an arm. He is panic-stricken. So am I.
He is dying. A terror, a pallid, pathetic shock more dreadful than any I have ever been able to imagine, has leaped into his face. I can’t stand it. He can’t stand it. He hugs me. He looks beggingly at me for help. His screams are piercing. I can’t bear to see him suffering such agony and fright. I have to do something. I hug him tightly with both my arms. I squeeze.
“Death,” says the doctor, “was due to asphyxiation. The boy was smothered. He had a superficial laceration of the scalp and face, a bruised hip, a deep cut on his arm. That was all. Even his spleen was intact.”
The nurses and policemen are all very considerate to me as I weep. They wait in respectful silence.
“Would you like to be alone?” one murmurs.
I’m afraid to be alone. I would rather have them all there with me now, to see me weeping in such crushing grief and shame. I cry a long time. When I feel I am able to speak, finally, I lift my eyes slowly a little bit and say:
“Don’t tell my wife.”
(p.561 – 562)
The book has only five more pages and in none of those does Slocum mention a funeral or further mourning. The closest things are:
Nobody knows what I’ve done. Everybody is impressed with how bravely I’ve been able to move into Kagle’s position and carry on with the work of organizing the convention. No one understand that carrying on bravely was the easiest thing to do.
I miss my boy.
…which could be true even if his boy is still not talking to him and hiding out in his room.