October 7, 2011 10:09 pm

Yossarian lives

‘Catch-22’ defined Joseph Heller, but the great antiwar novel published 50 years ago was not his finest

Dyspeptic and much put upon”: this is how Bruce Gold, the protagonist of Joseph Heller’s third novel, Good As Gold, imagines he would describe himself to a biographer. But this is not how Gold’s creator comes across in Tracy Daugherty’s Just One Catch. From his childhood in Coney Island to his dotage on Long Island, via military service in Corsica, advertising work in midtown Manhattan, family life on the Upper West Side, and unrewarding but remunerative experiences in Hollywood, Daugherty’s Heller is a hard-working, quick-witted loudmouth, companionable and competitive to similar degrees. For years, he enjoyed enormous, unimaginable meals with friends such as Mario Puzo and Mel Brooks, fellow members of the Gourmet Club, at one point rejecting suggestions that James Salter join the group on the grounds that he was “too good” a novelist. Although Daugherty’s Heller is buoyant, energetic and happy, his different publishers are torn about how much to emphasise this: the British version offers the clappy subtitle “The Passionate Life of Joseph Heller”, at the expense of the American edition’s more guarded and factual “A Biography of Joseph Heller”.

If, as Daugherty suggests, Heller spent most of his life (1923-1999) afloat on high spirits, it was in spite of the burden of personal misfortune. His father died when he was five; a decade later, he discovered that his siblings were half-siblings; Heller flew terrifying bombing missions in the war; he found writing difficult, unpleasant and slow; he suffered a near-fatal bout with Guillain-Barré syndrome (“When they name a disease after two guys,” Puzo said, “it’s got to be terrible”), and then, soon after he recovered, his 38-year marriage ended in a costly divorce. Heller could be anxious, and in his later years, melancholy, but outside the house it rarely showed.

Books about Heller published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Catch-22 would be expected to contain some kind of allusion to his most celebrated novel in their title, and those under review here do not disappoint. First published in 1961, that crazed, scrappy, path-breaking portrait of the second world war has since sold 10m copies, many of them to anti-Vietnam campaigners and (in my experience) gap-year backpackers. Heller’s hero Yossarian is an accomplished trouble-maker who has “made up his mind to live forever”, a wishful assertion given that he is a US Air Force bombardier stationed in the Tuscan Archipelago in 1943. In plumping for the title Just One Catch, American writer Daugherty bastardises the crucial line in which Yossarian is told that a pilot’s claim that he is too insane to fly functions as its own invalidation: “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.” Erica Heller, in her likeable memoir, Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad and Life Was A Catch-22, makes doubly sure that the association isn’t overlooked by pitching Heller’s hero into the mix.

It was in a spirit of irony and disappointment that John Carey called his recent biography William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies. This is how people viewed Golding, and how Golding – and Carey – wished they didn’t. But Heller was quite happy to be associated with his first novel. In any case, until 1974, when he turned 50, he was the man who wrote Catch-22 by virtue of having written no other book. And as he saw it, being the man who wrote Catch-22 was nothing to be ashamed of. As both Daugherty and Erica Heller tell us, when asked “How come you’ve never written a book as good as Catch-22?”, Heller would say: “Who has?”

It’s a memorable response – or, as Erica Heller puts it, “sly” and “Talmudic” – but surely untrue, partly because there were novels of a similar calibre published that same year (Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, William Maxwell’s The Chateau) and partly because, for many readers, Heller outdid himself with his second novel. Heller’s humour, a pleasure in itself, also served as a vehicle for criticism of American institutions, and in Something Happened (1974) he took the brutal damned-every-which-way logic of Catch-22 into another battleground: the suburban home. Here, narrator Bob Slocum tussles unmanfully with his long-suffering wife, unhappy daughter and a troubled son he identifies as “my boy” in order to distinguish him from his other, mentally retarded son, Derek. Heller devised a panicked, prevaricating voice, unvarying in register, constant in its pessimism, replete with parentheses, to convey just how tiring it is to be Bob Slocum:

“My daughter is just a little girl, and I try to outfox her in argument. (I just can’t help it.) I talk to her as I would to a grown-up ... cleverly, cogently, glibly, bitingly. I react to her unpleasant moods as I would to some insulting adult my own age or older. I try to embarrass and defeat her in debate: I want to top her always when we trade taunts and wisecracks, and I usually succeed. (If I can’t be funnier, I can always get angrier and grasp my victory that way.) I am ashamed; she makes me forget she is only a child. It is very important to me that I beat her in all our contests.”

Erica Heller’s is, naturally, a more intimate tale than that of Tracy Daugherty, and though she acknowledges that Something Happened (“569 pages of hilarious but mordant, caustically wrapped, smoldering rage”) is considered by many, “including the author himself”, to be his best work, she is writing as a daughter, not an appreciator: “There were years of verbatim conversations contained in it, and the dynamic between father and daughter ... was strikingly familiar. The parental need, the perverse competition to ‘outfox’ the child – was that, I wondered, universal?”

Erica Heller admits that she has never read Catch-22, despite trying “perhaps a hundred times”, and the agonising and bewildering experience of reading, aged 21, this portrait of parent-child one-upmanship is surely one of the reasons.

Those whom Something Happened didn’t hurt it thrilled. There’s no book like it, said Heller’s editor Robert Gottlieb, who had worked with him on Catch-22, but who thought the follow-up a richer achievement – and still does. A suburban novel published in 1974 was never going to have the impact of an antiwar novel published in 1961, and the aesthetic preference of a special few – even if they include author and editor – won’t rewrite literary history. But Something Happened remains remarkable, and Daugherty, who is cursory on Heller’s psychology, vague on what Heller called “lit crit stuff” but strong on practical detail, usefully describes Gottlieb’s process of transforming Heller’s original 940-page manuscript:

“He trimmed it to 800 pages, then 600. He’d lie on the floor of his office in jeans and sneakers, with Joe’s pages spread before him, munching a sandwich. He’d look for verbs to enrich, relative clauses to switch to participial phrases. He suggested making the first chapter the second chapter ... and opening the novel with ‘I get the willies when I see closed doors’ (originally, Joe had written, ‘I get the willies whenever I think about my father.’).”

In one of the many welcome documents reprinted in the new hardback Vintage Classics special edition of Catch-22, Norman Mailer, an admirer of the book, noted: “One could take out a hundred pages anywhere from the middle ... and not even the author could be certain they were gone.”

But with that book too, plenty of manuscript material had been scythed by Gottlieb’s blue pencil. Where his Knopf colleague Gordon Lish teased out Raymond Carver’s inner minimalist, Gottlieb saved Heller from his own gigantism, and saw better than the writer where his novels should go, what they could be. Heller recognised the benefits of this intrusion, but Gottlieb wasn’t attracted to his next novel-in-progress, Good as Gold, eventually published in 1979. He found the early chapters “shticky”, and only when pushed did he offer Heller’s eccentric agent, Candida Donadio, an advance of $10. (Heller ended up with nearly $2m from Simon & Schuster, Gottlieb’s old house.) Martin Amis, one of Heller’s favourite younger writers, compared the Gottlieb-less Heller to an athlete without a coach, and Good as Gold certainly bears the signs of a manuscript that hasn’t had its pages trimmed or its verbs enriched.

The protagonist, Bruce Gold, is a Jewish intellectual who divides his time between bickering with two old friends, dining with his rambunctious, warring family, and discussing a possible job at the White House with a wonkish adviser who speaks in riddles. The critic John Leonard, complaining about the book’s “bad jokes and bad faith”, wrote that those who wanted Heller’s fiction to be “more Jewish ... are going to be sorry they asked”. (The novel’s influence on Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question is unmissable.) Like Catch-22, the novel subsists on one joke. In fact, it’s the same joke, but back in 1961, it read as a discovery about the bureaucratisation of reality, the embrace of contradiction as clarifying and salutary, whereas in Good as Gold, it takes a somewhat simpler form: “Gold was opposed to segregation and equally opposed to integration”; “Things were much better for him when they had been much worse”. At one point, Gold’s father screams at him: “Apologise, you bastard, for that filthy word you just said.” It would have been difficult for Gottlieb to know where to start.

Heller’s later novels continue in this mode, with one narrator reflecting “Nothing fails like success”, and another emphasising the pseudo-paradox that someone “did his most successful work while living like a failure”. The sense, so powerfully imparted in the first two novels, that reality was out to get his characters, doing its best to arrange their failure or downfall, was whittled down to wordplay, with Heller’s titles tracing this decline: Good as Gold, God Knows (narrated by King David), Picture This (about Rembrandt), Closing Time (a geriatric sequel to Catch-22), Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man (a veiled self-portrait).

Daugherty is more concerned with chiding Heller’s detractors than making a proper evaluation of his achievement. Generally, his approach is to round on that myopic mob, book reviewers. Confronted by expressions of disappointment (or worse), he sees nothing but blind spots, prejudice, ulterior motives – as if the author of Catch-22 could ever have made a false move! – and ties himself in knots trying to give all of Heller’s novels the big treatment.

He says that the only critics who admired God Knows were those who treated it “on its own terms”. As he tells it, the reason Picture This provoked such disparagement was that readers weren’t expecting it, but his praise of this weird novel is hardly convincing (“Individual sentences have the quick, sometimes tentative, investigative quality of a brushstroke”), and in calling it “ingenuous” (for “ingenious”) he makes a telling slip. Even Christopher Buckley’s review of Closing Time, which Heller loved, is described as “perceptive, if mixed”.

And just as Daugherty is blind to the limitations of Heller’s work, so he appears resistant to personal criticism of Heller or rebuke. Just One Catch is no hagiography, but of these two biographical accounts, only Yossarian Slept Here gives us “the gruff, arrogant big shot; the smug, cocky fellow who sometimes showed up to friends’ cocktail parties for the sheer fun of insulting them”.

In the 50th anniversary year of Catch-22, it may seem beside the point to reflect excessively on what Joseph Heller did wrong – or what else he did right. Daugherty takes as one of his epigraphs a remark that Heller made in the mid-1970s: “It is impossible to predict or control how you will be remembered after your death.” But Heller must already have suspected that, whatever his subsequent achievements, he would end up being characterised as the author of Catch-22 – even by his eldest child, who hasn’t read the book.

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‘22, IT’S FUNNIER THAN 18’

It started with two men lying in bed.

Catch 22 book cover

“I was lying in bed in my four-room apartment on the West Side,” Joseph Heller said in 1974, “when suddenly this line came to me: ‘It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him.’ I didn’t have the name Yossarian. The chaplain wasn’t necessarily an army chaplain – he could have been a prison chaplain.”

Years later, when the book was nearing publication, Heller’s editor, Robert Gottlieb, gave him the unwelcome news that the book’s then title, Catch-18, would have to go: the best-selling author Leon Uris had a second world war novel about to come out called Mila 18.

“I was lying in bed worrying about it one night and I suddenly had this revelation,” Gottlieb recalled. “And I called him the next morning and I said ‘I’ve got the perfect number. Twenty-two, it’s funnier than 18.’ He said ‘Yes, it’s great, it’s great’.”

The novel went straight into the canon of American literature and the phrase went straight into the language.

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Just One Catch: The Passionate Life of Joseph Heller, by Tracy Daugherty, The Robson Press, RRP £25, 560 pages

Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad and Life Was a Catch-22, by Erica Heller, Vintage, RRP£8.99, 288 pages

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, Vintage Classics, RRP£18.99

Something Happened, by Joseph Heller, Vintage Classics, RRP £9.99

Good As Gold, by Joseph Heller, Vintage Classics, RRP£9.99

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