Friday, January 06, 2012


I just read Tracy Daugherty biography of Joseph Heller, Just One Catch.  For a famous novelist, Heller had an odd-shaped career.  The book that made him, Catch-22--his first and still most famous--wasn't published until he was almost 40, and his second didn't come out until he was in his 50s. So the first half of his bio is more about his life, while the second half deals quite a bit more with his literary output, not to mention his years as a celebrity.

Heller was born in 1923 and grew up in Coney Island.  He lost his father when he was young and lived in poverty, but like so many Jewish kids from that place and era, he was destined for greater things.  He was a bombardier in WWII, as you might guess from Catch-22.  In fact, what surprised me is how so much from the novel was based on real characters and incidents. He really did fly dozens of missions and keep seeing the number required rise; he really did know a guy named Joe who claimed to be a photographer from Life to meet women; he really did have to tend to the wounds of another in his aircraft, someone who kept saying he was cold; he really did have relations with certain types of prostitutes in Rome and elsewhere; he really did have a roommate who'd been shot down more than once and who'd painstakingly build things in their tent, and another who died so quickly he didn't have time to unpack his stuff; he really knew a character everyone called "Yo-yo"; he really did know a Colonel who used a cigarette holder and a major whose last name was Major.  Of course, he'd start with the basic facts and push them into absurdism, weaving them into a complex narrative.

After WWII, he sold some short stories to periodicals, but wasn't quick to get into the novel-writing game.  Before too long contemporaries Norman Mailer and James Jones had their major novels out about the war, but Heller was still in first gear. He spent some time in California and did a teaching stint at Penn State before returning to his homeground, where he became a successful ad man.  Meanwhile, he started working on his war novel, and gathered around people who believed in him.

The creation of his first novel, which took almost a decade, along with its editing, promotion and success, is the centerpiece of the biography, and its highlight. Of course, Catch-22 is also the highlight of his literary work (though some critics have tried to say his second novel is better--but then, that's what critics do, isn't it?).  I've read it many time in the past, and now want to read it again.  It's an amazing book, in that it manages to be dark and powerful but also howlingly funny the whole way through.

Not unlike his contemporary Kurt Vonnegut (who also has a new bio out), Heller became in the 60s, against all odds, a middle-aged guru, taken up by the counterculture of the era. He also wrote a Broadway play during this time, We Bombed In New Haven, which has some power, but is really a weaker stage version of Catch-22. In any case, his metier was the novel, and that was the form he returned to for the rest of his life.

Unfortunately, once Heller becomes part of the zeitgeist, Daugherty too often stops the action to give us a sense of the times--usually in a shallow way (not to mention he can be off, such as his mention of the "1967 Yom Kippur War"). The book would be considerably better, and faster, with most of this material gone.

Heller's second novel, Something Happened, was very different from his first.  Despite the title, almost nothing happens.  It's a dark, pessimistic work.  I read it once and I'm not sure if I'm willing to go back (though after reading this bio I'm considering it).  It's about middle-aged misery and malaise.  And once again, Heller takes his life and spins it into literature--which must have been somewhat disturbing for his family, seeing themselves as characters in such an unhappy book.  It sold well (I'm sure anything would have after Catch-22) and maintains a reputation.

He didn't spend all his time writing novels.  He went to Hollywood for a while to make easy money as a screenwriter.  Back in New York, he was a central member of The Gourmet Club--a group of friends, including Mel Brooks and Mario Puzo, who'd go to non-touristy Chinese restaurants and eat tremendous amounts.  He also had a well-known bout in the 80s with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, and became temporarily paralyzed, unable to move his limbs or swallow. He wrote about this with friend Speed Vogel in the surprisingly diverting No Laughing Matter.  (He also divorced his wife around this time and later married his nurse.)

Heller's third novel, Good As Gold, was the first of his to deal directly with Jewish life, and was also a parody of Washington.  The Jewish stuff isn't bad, and some of the Washington stuff is funny, but as satire, it lacks focus and the attacks on Henry Kissinger and Norman Podhoretz, seem bizarre and ill-tempered (and probably, today, dated).  In truth, while Heller wasn't quite written out, each novel would be weaker than the last.  I admit after reading his fifth, Picture This, I'd had enough.  Next was a sequel to Catch-22 entitled Closing Time, which takes up the story of Yossarian decades later, and I don't have the heart to read it--not only because the critics have warned me, but because I don't want to memory of the original tarnished.

Heller died in 1999.  For years his reputation has been waning, but Catch-22 has remained popular for over 50 years.  It's hard to believe it won't be around for another 50, and then some.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Attacks on Henry Kissinger bizarre and dated?

Hitch has barely been dead a month.

8:22 AM, January 06, 2012  
Anonymous LAGuy said...

Any fictional book that spends a large portion of its time attacking a real human being is already sort of bizarre.

As to dated, Kissinger may still be alive, but he's now an historical figure.

10:20 AM, January 06, 2012  

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