Bob Slocum reveals himself and all the other characters in the novel through his own tormented consciousness, a tricky decision on Heller’s part because Slocum is essentially unlikable, especially with regard to his perceptions of others. Thus, the novel is filled with characters in whom the reader can find little to admire.
Despite his apparent distaste for the flux of human experience, Slocum is an acute and perceptive observer of those around him, even when he tries to ignore their presence, as he does with Derek, his wife, his daughter, his coworkers, his lovers, and almost everyone whom he encounters at some point in his relationships with them. These observations give the reader an understanding of the book’s other characters—an understanding, however, that is obviously limited and erroneous, the product of what Slocum himself recognizes as a flawed perspective.
Slocum is an insecure and frightened man, perhaps on the verge of a breakdown but ironically also on the verge of his greatest professional success. The reader comes to know of the deep-seated nature of his irrational fears and emotions through Slocum’s own thought process. He analyzes his dreams, his memories, and his past and present experiences in a frank, sometimes brutally honest way. His ego appears to be all-absorbing and all-consuming. Even when his speculation and self-analysis lead him almost to acknowledge that other characters might deserve his (and the reader’s) sympathy and compassion, he cannot, ultimately, stay outside his own overwhelming need long enough to give the others what he knows they deserve: “Whenever I feel sorry for someone, I find that I also feel sorry for myself.”
The minute detail that characterizes Slocum’s observations of all the other characters in the novel suggests that he is, in addition to his other qualities, sensitive in a way that his behavior belies. He knows from the merest body stance, the subtlest facial expression, how his wife and his children, except Derek, feel, and he knows that Derek cannot feel. One of the many ironies of his character, however, is his inability to turn sensitive observation into equally sensitive behavior, a failure which makes his existence more tortured than it would be were he not so acutely aware of others around him. At times, Slocum longs for the insensible world he believes his idiot son to...
(The entire section is 976 words.)