After Tony: A Literary Speculation

June 11, 2007 | 3 books mentioned 1 4 min read

I remember when I first started watching The Sopranos: early winter in the small town in Oklahoma where my then-girlfriend (now wife) had gone to work among the Cherokees. I was on a break from college, but my girlfriend got a grand total of something like four days off around Christmas (this notwithstanding the prominence of Christianity in the culture of Tahlequah). And so, from 7:30 in the morning until 6:00 at night, I was on my own. Believe me when I say: there is no winter like an Oklahoma winter. I’d write in the morning and then, in the afternoon, distract myself from the endless flat grayness of the country outside the living room window by reading books and watching movies.

This was back in the days of VHS, and one day at the Blockbuster I picked up a tape with the first three episodes of this premium-cable-channel show I’d been hearing so much about: The Sopranos. It was love at first sight. Aside from the searing performances of the leads and a memorable character turn from a minor hero of mine, “Miami” Steve Van Zandt of the E Street Band, the show offered all of the addictive pleasures of serial storytelling. This, I think, was what made The Sopranos feel so much like a novel. It was Dickens with gabbagul in place of figgy pudding. (And mightn’t Copperfield’s Barkis have recognized a kindred soul in Silvio Dante? Or Mr. Micawber tendered to Paulie Walnuts some prolix offer of friendship?)

Seven and a half years later, the titular Sopranos have reached the end of their long and erratic arc, and heat and humidity are on the rise in Brooklyn. (Believe me when I say: there is no summer like a New York summer.) And the question arises: how to fill the empty place Tony & Co. have left behind? How to pass the long summer afternoons?

covercoverThe obvious quick fix for those suffering from Sopranos withdrawal is The Godfather, but Puzo’s dialogue might feel a bit flat after David Chase’s. So here’s a suggestion: Robert Graves’ I, Claudius and Claudius the God bear more than a passing resemblance to The Sopranos, and are similarly well-written and densely plotted. Given that the murderous matriarchs of these narratives are both named Livia, I wonder if Chase wasn’t inspired by Graves. Beneath the disparate Italian settings – Rome at the time of Christ and Jersey in the time of American Idol (how far we’ve come) – The Sopranos and I, Claudius are both sagas of intrigue and betrayal, of men whose ability to trust their friends and loved ones wanes as their proximity to power increases.

coverIf it’s the psychodrama of The Sopranos that appeals to you, however, I can recommend an even less likely analogue: Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. Here, trust is also at a premium. The setting is not a mob war-zone, however, but ranges from the WASPy corridors of a Fortune 500 company to the bucolic suburbs of Connecticut. Like Tony Soprano, Heller’s Bob Slocum is an upwardly mobile executive suffering from moral rot. He is as unpleasant to spend time with as Tony has been this season, and yet his intertwined rage and loneliness seem to shed some kind of bleak light on the human condition.

Heller is, I think, a vastly underrated prose writer. His prefers a limited diction to the omnivorous vocabulary of fellow-travelers like John Barth and Thomas Pynchon, but his syntactic subtlety yields sentences of arresting power. Check out this outburst from Slocum, worthy of Dr. Melfi’s office:

“Even fancy bakeries now use a substitute for whipped cream that looks more like whipped cream than whipped cream does, keeps its color and texture longer, doesn’t spoil, and costs much less, yielding larger profits. […] It tastes like s–t. Nobody cares but me. From sea to shining sea the country is filling with slag, shale, and used-up automobile tires. The fruited plain is coated with insecticide and chemical fertilizers. Even pure horses–t is hard to come by these days. They add preservatives. You don’t find fish in lakes and rivers anymore. You have to catch them in cans. Towns die. Oil spills. Money talks. God listens. God is good, a real team player. ‘America the Beautiful’ isn’t: it was all over the day the first white man set foot on the continent to live.”

It’s all here, in embryonic form: the rage, the narcissism, the depression, the nostalgia, the soured aspirations. (Not to mention the serial infidelity and a climax suspiciously reminiscent of the death of Christopher Moltisanti this season on The Sopranos.) I don’t know whether David Chase has read Something Happened, but the section headings Heller uses to structure Slocum’s 550-page monologue could just as easily describe the trajectory of seven seasons of The Sopranos: “I get the willies”; “My daughter’s unhappy”; “My little boy is having difficulties”; “There’s no getting around it”…

Perhaps most significantly, Chase and Heller are both willing to take literally the Freudian constructs that postmodern discourse has reduced to the level of metaphor, or bumper sticker. Slocum and Soprano are men haunted by a small handful of dreams and traumas (e.g., by their love for and resentment of their mothers). And every interaction out in the great world is in some way a Freudian replaying of a domestic trauma. As psychology, this might not be as nuanced as what you’d get in your local therapists’ office, but it comes cheaper, and in deft hands attains the mythic resonance of art. In Something Happened, especially, we see the way that every conflict comes back to the primal fourfold of Slocum’s household: man, woman, girl, boy. Every man is father, son, and brother, and every woman is mother, wife, and sister. And, returning to The Sopranos, we find that, however baroque the FBI’s organizational charts get, it really is all about family, this thing of ours.

In the thirty years since its publication,Something Happened has been obscured by the long shadow cast by Heller’s first novel, Catch-22. But I have no doubt that, on the bookshelves of the future, nestled between the DVD boxed sets, there will be a place for it… as there will be for The Sopranos. This summer, before you move on to Deadwood, or to the BBC’s miniseries version of I, Claudius, you might pick up Something Happened for your maintenance dose of literary misanthropy.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.

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