Study Guide

Something Happened

By Joseph Heller

Something Happened Introduction

Once upon a time in America, Mr. Bob Slocum had a respectable job in the city, Mrs. Slocum was lively and beautiful, and their two children were healthy and normal. But there was also Derek, the third son born with a mental capacity that wouldn't allow him to develop past the age of five. There was also the fact that Mr. Slocum decided he wanted a divorce the moment he was married, and the fact that Mrs. Slocum drank too much wine during the day. The daughter grew insecure about her looks, and the other son grew to fear everyone and everything around him.

What happened to our perfect American family?

In Something Happened, author Joseph Heller was convinced that he had written a work of genius. No, really: the dude even stashed copies of the manuscript in his YMCA locker just in case his apartment building burned down and destroyed the manuscript along with it. On the day that he went to deliver it to his editor, he asked his daughter to accompany him in case he was struck by a car or had a heart attack in the middle of the street.

True story, folks.

So what's all the hullaballoo over Something Happened?

Published in 1974, just thirteen years after Heller's smash hit Catch-22, Something Happened was another work with fragmented storytelling that threw the narrator's sanity into question. A cross between Mad Men and Revolutionary Road, Something Happened is a classic tale of 1960s suburban disillusionment. You know the drill: you get lots of angst about the monotony of raising children, going to work in boring offices, and spray painting front lawns green.

Okay, maybe not that last thing.

Anyway, novels of suburban anxiety have been the fad since people began commuting between the cities and the 'burbs after World War II. And in fact, Something Happened picks up where Catch-22 left off: it's all about what happened to people after they came back from the war and traded city life for the cookie-cutter burbs. Heller characterizes these pockets of America as hotbeds of complacency, adultery, and existential angst. They are places where people are deeply unhappy and bide their time just waiting for something to happen.

So, will anything actually happen? What will that something be? Will it rock these people's world?

Read on and find out, Shmoopers. We promise you won't see this something coming.

What is Something Happened About and Why Should I Care?

What makes you happy? Is it hanging out with your bestie, hearing the bell at the end of a long school day, or maybe talking with a Chewbacca mask on? Hey, we're not judging.

In Something Happened, Bob Slocum isn't quite sure what makes him happy. Belonging to a three-car family with two Technicolor televisions just isn't enough. Job security, promotion, a beautiful wife, and healthy children don't quite cut it for him, either. He's not alone in how he feels, either: all of the people in his life are just as unhappy as he is.

It's what we call suburban angst, folks, and it's still here. Ever see American Beauty? Yeah, life as a corporate drone in the 'burbs doesn't seem to have improved at all since the 1960s. This stuff is as relevant now as it was back when Heller put his pen to paper.

Bob Slocum does everything he thinks he is supposed to do in order to be happy. Haven't we all done this? Spent tons of money on fancy sneakers just because our basketball idols have them, or bought wacky fur vests when we've seen everyone else wearing them?

Slocum believes marriage, children, and a well-paying job are the keys to happiness. But he can't ever seem to make anyone happy, especially himself. He's never happy at home, nor is he happy with the multiple women he gets it on with. He isn't happy at work, either, even with the prospects of promotion. What's caused him to be so unhappy? Is it societal pressure to conform? Is he not surrounding himself with the right people? Or is this world just completely and totally meaningless?

Something Happened is a work of fiction, but it calls on us to think deeply about what makes us happy. Expensive cars? Good friends? Family vacations? Better figure it out for yourselves, Shmoopers, because you sure don't want to end up like any of the characters in this novel.

Something Happened Resources


What Would Happen?
Heller's daughter Erica reveals exactly what her father said to her the day the two went to deliver the manuscript for Something Happened to the publisher. She also tells about how Heller kept copies of the manuscript stashed in his locker at the YMCA in the event that a fire or something struck his apartment.

All About Joseph
Check out Heller's biography and learn about how the dude's first jobs during World War II shaped his early novels.

The Enigma of Joseph Heller
Heller was a pretty complicated guy. Check out this write-up on him to figure out what made the mad genius a mad genius.

Author Ron Rosenbaum talks about the tremendous effect Heller and his first novel Catch-22 had on him.


Mad Men (2007-2015)
The AMC television show oozes with traces of Something Happened, and in fact the work served as an influence on the show's development.


Interview with Joseph Heller
This interview with Joseph Heller took place during the week of the publication of Something Happened, only the author's second novel.

Joseph Heller in Rolling Stone
Heller was not as anti-war as many believe him to be. The positive experiences he had serving in World War II greatly influenced his outlook, though he was not blind to the harsh realities of war, either. Such cruelties feature prominently in Catch-22 and raise questions about the ethics of wartime practices.


Interview with Bill Boggs
American television presenter Bill Boggs interviews Joseph Heller about Catch-22 and other famed works.

Joseph Heller Speaking at the UCLA Communications Department
Heller drones on for a bit in this one, but he offers some interesting perspectives on his works. Skip to about an hour and five minutes in, and you can hear him reading about the place where Slocum works.

Even More about Joseph Heller
Watch Joseph Heller talking all about his personal life and his success as an author.


Joseph Heller During World War II
At age nineteen, Heller enlisted in the Army and fought two years later on the Italian Front.

Joseph Heller After Experiencing Great Success
It only took Heller one week to write the first chapter of Catch-22. He must have known then the tremendous success the book would instantly become.

Joseph Heller Post-Success
Here's another cool picture of Heller in the interim between Catch-22 and Something Happened. Albert Einstein hair, anyone?