On Joseph Heller

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This review of Tracy Daugherty’s Just One Catch: The Passionate Life of Joseph Heller (The Robson Press) and Erica Heller’s Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller was Dad and Life was a Catch-22 (Vintage) first appeared in The Irish Times on 8th October 2011.

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“T.S. Eliot.” “The first time Yossarian saw the Chaplain, he fell madly in love with him.” “He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt.” “They arrested Yossarian for being in Rome without a pass.” “I have named the boy Caleb, in accordance with your wishes.” “Who promoted Major Major?” “They don’t have to show us Catch-22. The law says they don’t have to.” “Which law says they don’t have to?” “Catch-22.”

It’s roughly thirteen years since I read Catch-22, but on sitting down to re-read it, on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, I discovered that all of the jokes, sentences, and exchanges quoted above had survived almost completely intact in my mind, with scarcely a word out of place. Clive James has remarked that, five years after we’ve read it, even the best novel is reduced in our memory to a set of indistinctly-recalled images: Emma Bovary in her carriage, Nick Carraway standing by the green-lit shore. But Catch-22 remains as quotable as The Simpsons. In retrospect, Joseph Heller appears to have schooled us in a style of humour that we now take for granted – absurdist, brash, hyperintelligent, rooted in despair. When Homer Simpson tells his children, “Trying is the first step towards failure,” he sounds an awful lot like Yossarian. Heller’s style is all around us; amazingly – and while it does bear certain traces of its period (its circular structure is perhaps a little “experimental” for contemporary tastes) – Catch-22 might have been published yesterday.

Over the last 50 years, Joseph Heller’s first novel has sold in the tens of millions. All writers thirst for this kind of success, of course – but Heller achieved something much rarer, something writers generally won’t even admit to coveting: his book gave the language a new phrase. You can look up “catch-22” in the dictionary, if you want – but you’d be better advised to read the book again. In Heller’s hands, the conceit has a savage elegance, and the book’s tangled narrative unfurls in gorgeously modulated prose, in which even the simplest sentences end with the snap of sharp teeth: “Doc Daneeka was a very neat, clean man whose idea of a good time was to sulk.”

So, what of the man who wrote it? The average reader, I suspect, would be hard-pressed to name another of Heller’s novels. And, in fact, he never wrote anything else as good as Catch-22 – but as Heller himself used to say, “Who has?” Two new books, one a full-length biography and the other a memoir by Heller’s daughter Erica, attempt to give us some sense of Joseph Heller, the man – with, in both cases, disappointingly uneven results.

Tracy Daugherty’s biography, Just One Catch, is chatty, gossipy, and takes some bemusing liberties with the form of the literary biography – fiddling with chronology and lapsing frequently into a version of free indirect style: “Time yo-yos back and forth as he crosses green fields with his wife and kids…” – that sort of thing. Nonetheless, a picture emerges: Heller, born in Coney Island in 1923, lost his father Isaac to a botched stomach ulcer operation when he was four years old, and grew up among the amusement parks and hotdog stands with a family struggling to fill the gap that Isaac left behind. “I didn’t realise how traumatized I was,” Heller recalled. He felt that his childhood bereavement had left him with a “haunted imagination.”

Late in 1942 Heller enlisted in the army. It was “like going off to a baseball game… [We] had no idea what we were doing except that it was more exciting, more romantic, more adventurous that what we were doing at home.” Heller was trained as a bombardier and sent to Corsica, and from there he eventually flew sixty bombing missions over Europe. The generals, he found, kept raising the required number of missions.

Thirty years later, the protagonist of Something Happened (1974), Heller’s second novel, would reflect: “Something did happen to me somewhere that robbed me of confidence and courage.” What happened to Heller was the war. The most harrowing sections of Daugherty’s biography confirm what readers of Catch-22 have always suspected: the novel’s central event, the awful death of Snowden during a flight under heavy flak, came directly from Heller’s own experience. “I’m cold,” Snowden cries, in the book’s most nakedly despairing sequence – just as a young gunner cried out in Heller’s arms.

It seems fair to say that Heller – although he did fashion an enduring work of art from his trauma – simply never recovered from his experiences as a bombardier. For thirteen years after the war, he couldn’t travel by plane. “Man was matter,” Yossarian realises. “Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret.”

It was an insight that authorised the blackest satire, and that underwrote every memorable gag in Catch-22. But it can’t have made Heller an easy man to live with. Yossarian Slept Here is Erica Heller’s account of her relationship with her father, and on the evidence presented, he was not a man with a natural gift for paternity. “I don’t do kids,” he told the interviewer Barbara Gelb. He certainly appeared to have no real clue as to how a daughter might be raised. He refused to meet her boyfriends; told her she shouldn’t bother writing fiction unless she was as good as Martin Amis; and, when Erica did write a first novel, Heller’s verdict was: “Not as bad as I expected.”

When Something Happened appeared (and it is an extraordinary novel: obsessive, anxious, hysterically paranoid), it contained a chapter called “My Daughter’s Unhappy,” in which the narrator observes that his daughter is “often mean, often depressed.” “How could you write about me that way?” Erica asked. “What makes you think you’re interesting enough to write about?” Heller countered.

Yossarian Slept Here is hampered by a lack of what people will insist on calling “closure.” Plainly Erica Heller has not quite recovered from her father’s sexual betrayals of her mother, nor the divorce that ensued and that tore the family apart. The Joseph Heller she depicts is a monster of narcissism – capricious, hungry for fame, indifferent to the happiness of his children. Erica Heller’s is, of course, a partial and heavily weighted account – and when she reveals, in her closing chapters, that she has never actually read Catch-22, the reader, instead of being charmed, trusts her less.

As chronicled in these two books, Heller’s parallel lives – as novelist and as family man – each describe a declining arc. His novels got steadily worse after Catch-22, and his family disintegrated, which much trauma and sorrow for all involved. Daugherty’s biography is strongest on the literary milieu in which Heller thrived; Erica Heller’s memoir, on which Daugherty disproportionately relies, throws up the occasional revealing anecdote. Neither is entirely satisfactory. But both books serve at least one useful function: they make you want to reread Catch-22. “Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some have mediocrity thrust upon them.” I remembered that one wholesale, too. Now that’s the stuff.

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