Joseph Heller died in East Hampton, New York on this day in 1999 (aged 76).
"He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive."⋯⋯
― from CATCH-22 (1961)
― from CATCH-22 (1961)
The Enigma of Joseph Heller
By BLAKE BAILEY
Published: August 26, 2011
“Oh God, this is a calamity for American literature,” Kurt Vonnegut said on learning of Joseph Heller’s death in 1999. John Updike was less alarmed: Heller “wasn’t top of the chart” as a writer, he reflected, though he was “a sweet man” and his first novel, “Catch-22” was “important.” Note the Updikean judiciousness of “important”: he didn’t say he liked the book, but it was a great cultural bellwether as novels go, and it has endured. Despite mixed reviews on publication in 1961, “Catch-22” was soon adopted by college students who recognized a kindred spirit in Yossarian, the bombardier who rebels against a materialistic bureaucracy hellbent on killing him. “Better Yossarian than Rotarian” became a popular slogan, all the more so with the timely (for the novel’s sake) military escalation in Vietnam, which became the “real” subject of “Catch-22” and partly accounts for its sales of more than 10 million copies to date. It’s hard to argue with that kind of importance.
Illustration by Joe Ciardiello
JUST ONE CATCH
A Biography of Joseph Heller
By Tracy Daugherty
Illustrated. 548 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $35.
YOSSARIAN SLEPT HERE
When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a “Catch-22”
By Erica Heller
Illustrated. 272 pp. Simon & Schuster. $25.
Excerpt: ‘Just One Catch’ (August 26, 2011)
Times Topic: Joseph Heller
After a few unhappy postwar years in academia, Heller worked as a copywriter at places like Look and wrote a number of derivative but promising short stories. Then one day in 1953 the opening of a novel popped into his head: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him.” Right away Heller wrote 20 pages in longhand, then spent another eight years accruing index cards and further pages that finally amounted to a very long, quirky, nonlinear war novel that was, to put it mildly, a tough sell. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Heller’s literary career without the zealous support of his agent, Candida Donadio — whose efforts on behalf of many good American writers deserve to be better remembered — and a young editor at Simon & Schuster, Robert Gottlieb, who defended the book against detractors both in-house and out. One advance reader was Heller’s idol, Evelyn Waugh, who wrote the publisher as follows: “You are mistaken in calling it a novel. It is a collection of sketches — often repetitious — totally without structure.” Waugh disliked other things about the book, too, but Art Buchwald, anyway, considered it a “masterpiece.”
This piquant juxtaposition (Well, but if Art Buchwald liked it . . . ) comes to us courtesy of Tracy Daugherty, whose biography of Heller, “Just One Catch,” arrives only two years after his well-regarded book about Donald Barthelme, “Hiding Man,” the better to coincide with the 50th anniversary of “Catch-22.” In this relatively brief span of time — long enough to produce a first-rate campaign biography of Herman Cain, say — Daugherty has managed a prodigious feat of research, in the thick of which he still was (according to endnotes) as late as Aug. 29 of last year. And yet, one can’t help thinking wistfully of what might have been if Daugherty had seen fit to wait until the 52nd or 53rd anniversary. He does, after all, have a real feeling for Heller’s work and the odd jumble of influences that led to it — everything from the shticky, iconoclastic humor of midcentury Jewish comics to Kafka’s novel “The Trial,” with its vision of a surreal, victimizing bureaucracy. Daugherty mentions Kafka’s influence on Page 146, and again on Pages 150, 169 and 176, where he also notes the influence of Céline, Waugh and/or Nabokov — that is, by reminding us (in much the same words each time) that Heller was rereading these writers.
But the main problem here is not one of repetition so much as emphasis: I sometimes got the impression Daugherty had been writing a book on the postwar cultural ethos when he accepted the Heller assignment, whereupon he decided to merge the two, and not always in favor of his nominal subject. Digressions abound. Heller’s time as a student at the University of Southern California leads to a little history of the Watts neighborhood, near to which (but not in) Heller and his wife briefly lived, and later we’re informed that Disneyland opened in Anaheim the same year (1955) that an excerpt of “Catch-18” (as it was then known) appeared in New World Writing — followed by a few more paragraphs about Disneyland, as well as a lot about the Luce empire (Heller worked for Time Inc.), pulp magazines, Mad magazine and sporadic meditations on the influence of Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Norman Mailer, Norman Podhoretz and many others. Sources, mostly secondary, are quoted at great blocky length, like a passage from Michael Herr’s “Dispatches” about an obsolete map of Vietnam, or — somewhat more relevantly — kittenish dialogue from a memoir titled “Does She . . . or Doesn’t She?” by Shirley Polykoff, which gives one a sense of what a bantering rascal Heller was in his adman days.
One alternative to quoting at length is paraphrase, which, as every biographer knows, is a hateful business. And yet Daugherty seems to have conducted few interviews, and so relies heavily on Heller’s memoir “Now and Then,” as well as a book Heller wrote with his friend Speed Vogel, “No Laughing Matter,” about his struggle with Guillain-Barré syndrome. By Heller’s own confession, his strong suit wasn’t self-awareness — as many critics also observed in their reviews of “Now and Then” — which means that Daugherty is forced not only to paraphrase, but to paraphrase about fairly nugatory matters, and his efforts to pump significance into the prose result in sentences like these (about a schoolmate of Heller’s named Gertrude, who called herself Gail when cultivating older boys): “Had she adopted an alias in preparation for indulging in unspeakable behavior? . . . Women’s secrets were many, their mysteries manifold and deep.” Such an anguished tautology (many secrets, manifold mysteries) is a minor annoyance next to Daugherty’s tendency to appropriate the perspective of a given character — somewhat understandable when he’s paraphrasing Heller’s own thoughts, less so when he jumps into the head of Heller’s mother, shown here hanging draperies prior to a nasty fall: “She wanted a change — a turning away from drab reminders of the past, fresh colors to perk her up. . . . She tumbled to the floor. Pain shot through her hip and thigh. She couldn’t tell if she had broken anything.” And so on.
But again, Daugherty is often perceptive about Heller’s place in the larger culture, even if the novelist himself rarely comes into focus. For the human aspect, one turns to Erica Heller’s frank but loving memoir of her father, “Yossarian Slept Here,” which comes as close as possible, I dare say, to deciphering the enigma behind the obsessive, pitch-black fiction. Joseph Heller, the opposite of demonstrative, was given to oblique ways of showing affection, like pelting Erica and her brother with “gray, shriveled” snowballs he’d preserved in the freezer for summer fun, or by hiding behind a newspaper in the back of a bus so that Erica wouldn’t know he was worriedly following her to school each morning. Such vignettes are all the more charming, and telling, because the author shares her subject’s sense of humor, and is herself a good writer to boot. “I noticed the way my father was looking at Nixon alongside the way my mother was looking at my father,” she writes of the moment she realized, during Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, that her parents weren’t getting along. “They were identical.”
That was the year Heller published his second novel, “Something Happened,” which Daugherty commends as follows: “Joe stepped beyond Wilson’s sentimentality and Yates’s bitterness to eviscerate modern America’s success ethic.” Such a pat comparison to Sloan Wilson, the author of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” and Richard Yates, the author of “Revolutionary Road,” is the sort of thing Daugherty might have emended given a bit more time to think about it; at any rate, “Something Happened” is perhaps the one work of postwar American fiction that makes Yates seem positively Panglossian. Erica Heller, for her part, describes the novel (probably her father’s best) as “569 pages of hilarious but mordant, caustically wrapped, smoldering rage” — though of course it’s personal in her case. Primary among the targets of the protagonist Bob Slocum’s paranoid, solipsistic rant is his family, which includes a faded, tipsy wife to whom he’s compulsively unfaithful, and a dreary 15-year-old daughter who likes to remark that she wouldn’t mind terribly if he were dead. Recognizing real-life “verbatim conversations” in a chapter titled “My Daughter Is Unhappy,” a “demolished” Erica Heller confronted her father. “What makes you think you’re interesting enough to write about?” he replied.
The story, from there, gets uglier. During her parents’ divorce proceedings, Erica was forced to testify against her father when he refused to acknowledge the existence of a mistress to whom he’d once casually introduced her. Their relations never quite recovered. After the trial, Joseph refused to speak to her and returned her letters unopened (a period she characterizes as “the Big Freeze” or “the Mondo Froideur”), and, despite the odd reconciliation, the two weren’t speaking at the time of his death. At Heller’s funeral the rabbi held forth about the various roles he’d played in life — brother, friend, husband (he’d remarried) and “an inspiration to young writers everywhere” — while forbearing to mention his accomplishments as a father.
The miracle of this memoir is that it never seems less than fair: Erica Heller’s worst grievances are mentioned more in sorrow (or levity) than anger, and she’s careful to give her own shortcomings their due. Delightfully — after her own, rather dismal tale is told — she steps aside to allow testimony from her father’s colleagues and friends, like Christopher Buckley (who, she slyly reminds us, wrote an “incomparably restrained” memoir about his parents, “Losing Mum and Pup”): all are glowing, and persuasively so, since Heller was capable of being (as Updike would have it) very “sweet” indeed, such that even his family seemed to forgive him everything in the end. While she was dying of cancer, his ex-wife’s utmost curse was to forbid Erica from ever giving him a coveted pot roast recipe. The daughter kept her promise, though she prints the recipe at the end of her book; for this reason alone — pity Joseph Heller the absence of such pot roast during his final years — I would recommend “Yossarian Slept Here.”