Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Bob Slocum is a character who uses dreams and memories, which make up a substantial portion of the novel, as part of his ongoing struggle to determine the key event, the “something” that “happened” to him, to cause him to be the man he is. Very early in the book, he thinks, “Something did happen to me somewhere that robbed me of confidence and left me with a fear of discovery and change and a positive dread of everything unknown that may occur. I dislike anything unexpected.” Because life is unpredictable and the unexpected happens daily, Slocum has come to dislike his life, but because death and change are also unpredictable and unexpected, even those alternatives provide no hopeful option for him.
Bob Slocum is a character suffering what pop psychologists would call a midlife crisis. The outer circumstances of his life change very little during the first three-fourths of the novel, but within his mind he contemplates changes in almost every area. He considers divorce. He contemplates how a proposed promotion might affect his life. He tries to face the necessity of institutionalizing his retarded child. Through dreams and memory, he even tries to re-create the happy and sad experiences of his growing-up years in search of a security that he feels he once had but which is now missing. He becomes particularly obsessed with the memory of a girl he knew when he was seventeen and working part-time for an insurance company. After many years of knowing that the girl, Virginia Markowitz, committed suicide while he was in the army, Slocum still clings to the hope represented by their innocent and unconsummated passion for each other.
Slocum’s exploration of his life is, in part, a struggle to establish a valid point of view from which to make the decisions he faces. At one point he asks himself, “Where is a frame of reference now for any of us that extends even the distance to the horizon, only eighteen miles away?” Although Slocum understands other people fairly well, he cannot translate that understanding and perception into actions or relationships. He remains trapped within his own mind, which he imagines oozing excess matter and ready to explode.
The relationship between Slocum and his wife is neither happy nor unhappy. He says that he has always wanted a divorce, even before he met his wife and married her. Yet he has not. He is regularly unfaithful with both whores...
(The entire section is 987 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bob Slocum talks endlessly and compulsively. He talks about the people with whom he works; he talks about each member of his family; he talks about the women in his life. When he is not talking to other characters, in long stretches of rapid-fire dialogue, he is talking to himself about what he fears, what he wishes he had done, and what he hopes for (but not very hard). His talk reveals that he is a bully with his daughter, son, and wife but also that he loves them, knows what they fear, and wishes he could remove the causes of those fears. Yet he cannot bring himself to name the members of his family. His wife is called that; his son and daughter are never called by name.
The only family member Slocum ever names is his youngest, Derek, a boy with Down syndrome who is an embarrassment to all the other members of the family. They know they should love and cherish the helpless child, but they would be happier if he were not there and if the series of unpleasant women hired to look after him could be sent away. Still, Slocum and his wife cannot bring themselves to institutionalize the child, so Derek is always present.
A major achievement of Something Happened is Heller’s ability to sustain interest in and even a degree of sympathy for Slocum, who is in many ways a despicable individual. He lies, frequently and easily. Told by an executive that he is being considered to replace the head of another division in the corporation where he works, he lies to the man and to his own boss. At work he is a toady, obsequiously playing up to anyone he fears, even as he enjoys instilling fear in those below him.
At home, he manipulates his family, especially his wife and daughter. He relishes his superiority to them in one-upmanship, playing verbal games with them which he knows will humiliate them and make them hate and fear him. He hates the fact that they cannot seem to deal with their own lives: His wife thinks that she is losing her attractiveness, and his daughter thinks that she is fat and ugly; he hates them for feeling that way. At the same time, he feels sorry for them and wishes he could...
(The entire section is 870 words.)