“Hagar & Ishmael” — An Excerpt from an Unfinished Joseph Heller Novel

“Hagar & Ishmael” is an excerpt from an unfinished Joseph Heller novel (and yes, we know it’s not new to the internet. It was published by some magazine called The Paris Review a few years ago)–

It wasn’t my idea. Sarah thought of it first. But I was excited from the time she said so, and I began to wash myself everywhere every day, and to keep myself clean after noontime too. I was happy as a lark and chirped and flitted everywhere like a cute little bird, singing to myself merrily and winking to my friends and giggling behind my hands, after Sarah raised the question and Abraham moved me into his quarters to be near him, where I could be watched. Of course I would not have said no even if I could have, and of course I was excited by this chance. I was the envy of almost all of the other women, even of those with husbands.

For a week or more he would not touch me, until it was clear I was not already pregnant with another man’s child, and then for another week also after that, until I was free of the curse and he knew I was not unclean. These people are funny that way, he and Sarah, and Lot and his wife too, before they moved off with their daughters and all their household to dwell away from us in Sodom. Once I lay with Abraham and bore him his son, no other man in the camp came near me again, or seemed to want to, even long after. By the end of one month I was with child. Abraham sent me back and did not use me that way again, although I made eyes at him a lot to show that I wanted him to.

I cannot say truthfully which one of the two of us started the trouble, whether it was Sarah with her envy or me with my vanity and disrespect that kindled the enmity between us and destroyed the feelings of friendship between mistress and slave that had been in all ways favorable since they bought me with money and took me up out of Egypt with them. Probably, it was both. I was Egyptian and a servant, she was his blood relation, a half sister. But she was aged and barren, and I was younger and carrying her husband’s child, the son or daughter of her master that she herself had not been able to bear, and they had been married long.

I could not contain my happiness and my pride in myself and certainly did not wish to hide them. My conceit grew with my belly, expanding without shame. Soon everyone knew I had Abraham’s child. I made sure of that.



3 thoughts on ““Hagar & Ishmael” — An Excerpt from an Unfinished Joseph Heller Novel”

  1. I prefer Something Happened to Catch-22; I’ve read all but his final two books and recall Good as Gold fondly. I also seem to recall pressing God Knows enthusiastically on friends at the time, but have no real recollection of the quality.


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