Something Happened was Joseph Heller's next novel after his highly-praised Catch 22 about the insanity of war. The book was published a decade later and garnered bad reviews.
I think the critics missed the point of Something Happened. As pessimistic as the story is, it portrays an important but little-acknowledged fact about the American Dream: how easily it can turn into a nightmare when the dreamer wakes up to inner realities.
Robert Slocum is an executive in a New York City communications company. He is a success in the eyes of American society, but he is unhappy with his life. At cocktail parties his wife drinks too much and flirts with other men. His children don't like him. He indulges in adultery more from boredom than lust.
At one point Slocum says: "A man's head is his castle." He means the subtle lessons of life are the most profound. Life turns on a dime and we hardly notice.
Something happened to Slocum all right. In middle age he became what he had hated in his youth -- the status quo, the system, the establishment.
To a lesser degree, the same thing happened to me in my 40s.
At the time I lived in a Big Island rainforest. My closest friends were all 10 or 15 years younger than me because people my age seemed boring. They had caved in to society, settled for less, became set in their ways and old before their time. I hung out with younger people who were still in the game -- for inspiration to stay on track myself.
Then something happened. The roles were reversed. Suddenly, I was the one providing the inspiration. My younger friends came to me to learn how to grow tropical fruit trees and make a living close to nature, what books to read, how to handle romantic relationships, etc. All at once I was an expert on everything to them. It was a delusion, of course, but I went along without knowing what I was doing.
When I wasn't paying attention, the torch was passed from the previous generation. To me and thousands of others my age. It was time for us to Take Over.
Before I knew what was happening, I had employees. Not many, only two part-time, but I was an employer. I, who hated the very idea of employeehood, who considered it degrading for both employer and employee, who thought if you wanted more than you could gain by working alone, you wanted too much. Me. The realization struck like an earthquake. The ground of my existence shifted beneath my feet. I staggered like a drunken man -- a man drunk with power I didn't want.
At heart I was an Eskimo. When the Alaskan oil pipeline was built, some native Alaskans were hired in supervisory jobs to avoid discrimination, but the noble experiment didn't work. They refused to give orders to other native Alaskans. They were willing to take orders from whites because whites came from a different culture. But among their own tribes, each man was equal and had no right to boss around any other man.
When I finally read Something Happened, I saw myself in Robert Slocum and it wasn't a pretty picture. I was "respectable," which formerly had been a dirty word to me. I had become a rebel without a cause, part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
This was one of the main reasons I bailed out of the rainforest, left my friends behind and started a new life in Honolulu. I worked alone, taught myself web design and software programming, began writing fiction in earnest. I was determined to get back on the right track.
"The earth was made round so we can't see too far down the road and know what is coming." -- Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa