Comedy is murder

Thomas Powers

  • Just One Catch: The Passionate Life of Joseph Heller by Tracy Daugherty
    Robson, 548 pp, £25.00, September 2011, ISBN 978 1 84954 172 5
  • Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller was Dad and Life was a Catch-22 by Erica Heller
    Vintage, 272 pp, £8.99, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 09 957008 0

The longest years of Joseph Heller’s writing life fell between his first book and his second. He set no records but the delay eventually got his name into magazine pieces about one-book authors, a cautionary roster of the silent that included Margaret Mitchell, J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee and Ralph Ellison. Heller’s history reflected theirs – the dreams of youth and years of literary apprenticeship, a period of obsessed scribbling, enthusiasm from a publisher, a ripple of applause from the fraternity of reviewers, followed by the ever mysterious and arbitrary embrace of readers in their multitude. No one can predict or explain the runaway success. Down deep, authors are as baffled as anybody. The book has something to do with it, but what? Other great reads sputter along and are forgotten while the books that make a writer immortal seize the attention and affection of the public in a deathless grip. Big pay cheques usually follow. But not long after these happy moments – unreasonably soon, the writer may feel – congratulations fade away and the obvious question begins to appear: ‘What are you working on now?’

Heller, whose big book was slow to reach the stage of unqualified runaway success, learned to dread the obvious question. He had a title for his second long before he had much else. Over the years he often described the first inkling, but never in quite the same words. The drift was this. He had been out in New York one afternoon with his friend the writer George Mandel, when a sudden commotion stirred the crowd near the entrance to a store. Two people – kids he sometimes thought – were rushing towards the street, one urging on the other, calling back over his shoulder, ‘Come on! Something happened.’ What lodged in Heller was the phrase – something happened. In October 1962, when the paperback edition of his big book was beginning to sell in truckloads, Heller told an interviewer for Newsweek that his second novel was ‘about a married man who is working for a large company and who wants to work himself up to the point where he makes a speech at the company’s annual convention in Bermuda.’ The novelist and biographer Tracy Daugherty relates this moment in his masterful and fluent new life of Heller, Just One Catch. He pauses after the word Bermuda, very much, he imagines, as Heller must have done. ‘Married man working for a large company’ was not the sort of plot point to get a reporter begging for more. ‘It has implications,’ Heller added.

For the next 12 years Heller worked with this material as it emerged in ever darker and more dismal tones. It seems to have come one painful sentence at a time. He distracted himself with other projects. The biggest was an anti-war play called We Bombed in New Haven. The title comes from the American theatrical world in an era when plays aimed at Broadway often got their try-outs in New Haven, Connecticut, home of the Shubert Theater. The play did pretty well. But no one tried to claim that the play was big in the way Heller laboured to make Something Happened big. Repeating the big success was the Sisyphean rock assigned to Heller and other one-book wonders. How do you follow something that seizes the public imagination like Gone with the Wind, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Invisible Man or Heller’s own antic masterpiece about the world’s pitiless conspiracy to prevent a man from living for ever, Catch-22?

Heller’s big book did not arrive from nowhere in the fall of 1961. He had previously published a number of short stories, including two in the Atlantic Monthly and a third in Esquire. It was a solid start for a boy from Coney Island who enlisted in the Army Air Corps at 19, flew sixty missions over Occupied Europe on B-25 Mitchell bombers, and came home like thousands of other literate young Americans secretly hoping to dazzle the world with a novel about his war. But after his early success in placing stories, Heller put down his pen. Looked at with a cold eye, the early stories did not strike him as making quite the impact he had in mind. It would be easy to misunderstand how Heller felt about books; he pinched girls, cracked wise and chewed toothpicks in the raw Brooklyn way, but by the later 1940s he was developing a taste for literature of a disciplined and ambitious kind. ‘I now wanted to be new,’ he wrote later, ‘in the way that I thought, as I discovered them, Nabokov, Céline, Faulkner and Waugh were new.’ The war was on his mind but how to use the war in a novel did not come to him until the early 1950s, when two sentences woke him up one night in his apartment on the West Side of Manhattan. Where they came from he could never say. ‘It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him.’

Eventually, Yossarian the Assyrian bombardier took the role of Someone and eight years later, after an extended gestation about the length of James Joyce’s for Ulysses, Heller published the novel which set the standard he chased for the rest of his life. To the bold query why he never published another book as good as Catch-22, he would answer, ‘Who has?’

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