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?’

But at the same time Heller believed that his second novel, Something Happened, published at last in 1974, was actually his best book. ‘I put everything I knew about the external world into Catch-22,’ he said a year later, ‘and everything I knew about the interior world into Something Happened.’ It’s an interesting way to distinguish them. Catch-22 is about a man who comes to realise that the simplest explanation of the dangers of the war is that people are trying to kill him, and the people trying hardest are his own superior officers. Something Happened is about a man endlessly whipped this way and that by sudden freezes, thaws, squalls and doldrums of emotion he cannot control. Most of these feelings are aroused by members of his family. The subject of the book appears to be the chaos of the heart. The question at the core of each book, directed at the universe at large, is: what is this all about? The answer in both is: nothing good, don’t get your hopes up. What allows the reader to soldier on into this bitter headwind is the fact that the writer Joseph Heller is a very funny man.

Heller’s struggle to produce a second novel was followed by the same again for five more at roughly five-year intervals. It is likely that few but devoted fans could cite them from memory. I am reading from the list at the back of Daugherty’s book: Good as Gold (1979), God Knows (1984), Picture This (1988), Closing Time (1994) and Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man (2000). Unlike Catch-22, the later books all deliver a rich dose of the flavour of New York Jewish life, and especially of that blind and noisy insistence conveyed by the Yiddish word for crazy – meshuggah. Heller took the books seriously – just how seriously is evident in a story related by his daughter Erica, now about 60, in her recent memoir of her father, Yossarian Slept Here. Forty years ago, when the last section of Something Happened was finally written, Erica helped him deliver it to a copy shop. Heller dared not carry it through the streets of New York alone. Terrified that something would happen to the book, he conveyed the final chunk of manuscript gingerly in a box while Erica followed half a block behind. If Heller was struck by a car, he instructed his daughter, or if he had a heart attack, or was shot by a mugger – if something happened – she was to save that manuscript! He joked about everything but not about this.

Heller began the first page of every book hoping to write something for the ages. He managed it once, critics generally agree, but his later efforts all fell short. The problem was the standard. A book for the ages requires something more than a talented author with a good idea at the top of his game. It requires in addition the half-magical moment when readers are hungry for exactly what’s on offer and the excitement of their meeting makes some evident impression on the world. Catch-22 was that sort of book; its title entered the language and readers felt it explained the futility of their lives. None of Heller’s later novels got that sort of response but one of them, at least, was really pretty good and contained some of the best stuff he ever wrote. Not Something Happened, in my opinion, but the one you might think least promising – his sequel to Catch-22, called Closing Time. It contains perhaps the most convincing and fully imagined character Heller ever put in a book, a tough Brooklyn Jew named Lew Rabinowitz.

Joseph Heller in his prime loved to be out and about and had many drinking and schmoozing buddies. Among them were Mel Brooks, who built his career on the principle that tragedy is hard, but comedy is murder; Bruce Jay Friedman, who wrote novels, plays and movies; Mario Puzo, who made a fortune with his novel The Godfather; and Speed Vogel, who resists summary. Heller’s wife Shirley in her youth had been a friend of Vogel’s sister on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In 1962, she ran into Vogel on the beach at Fire Island and walked him over to meet her writer husband. They hit it off. Vogel was the son of a successful New York building contractor, did not lack for money, tried a lot of things without ever settling on one thing in particular, made friends easily and introduced a lot of them to Heller, who appreciated help in that department. Heller had small tolerance for domestic life; kids made him uncomfortable and by the time the Catch-22 money was rolling in Heller was stepping out. Daugherty makes no major effort to list the women passing through Heller’s life but there seem to have been a lot of them. Heller’s daughter, who got the facts from her mother, cites them by category: ‘friends of hers, of theirs, students, writers, PR women, editors, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers’. Years later, Heller insisted he wasn’t really all that interested in women; it was just something to do.

Hanging out was what Heller really liked. He wrote every day and got up from his desk restless for company, and preferably the company of men who told stories, cracked jokes and liked to eat. By the early 1980s he had quit Manhattan for the Hamptons on Long Island, where many other writers had come to ground in the late middle of their lives. Vogel was a pillar of the group that met regularly at Barrister’s for lunch in Southampton, picked because the waitresses were prettier than the ones at Bobby Van’s. The core included Vogel, Puzo, Friedman, Brooks and the screenwriter David Zelag Goodman. Kurt Vonnegut began to show up. Peter Matthiessen was considered but rejected for mentioning too often his membership in the Institute of Arts and Letters. ‘It’s an organisation,’ Puzo said, ‘for guys who can’t get screen deals.’ Barring Vogel, the core members all got screen deals. They hesitated to invite the novelist William Gaddis because none of them could get through his mammoth novels. They relented, Friedman tells us in his memoir, Lucky Bruce, when Heller’s one-time agent, Candida Donadio, said not to worry – nobody read Gaddis’s novels. In the city, when they wanted company they went to Elaine’s on the Upper East Side, where big book authors dined in the front room while tourists peeped at them from the back room.

For something over thirty years that was Heller’s life – serious writing for a big part of every day, then out with friends who liked to eat and tell stories. He was tense when the books were published, pleased and puffed up when the reviews were good, cast down when reviewers and readers turned their backs. But once in the course of Heller’s life the surface calm was ruffled. About midway on his march to the grave something happened. It had been building, in Erica’s view, since the mid-1970s, when she helped her father take his manuscript to the copy shop. Then, in an extended explosion best understood as a single event, Heller quit seeing his therapist, got rid of his accountant, fired the agent who had worked miracles on his behalf for 26 years, moved out of Manhattan for the Hamptons, quarrelled with the publisher that gave him ‘nearly’ $2 million for Good as Gold and divorced his wife of 36 years, Shirley Held.

If love is hard to explain, divorce is murder. Erica believes the seed can be found in what Heller’s protagonist in Something Happened, Bob Slocum, has to say about his wife in the book. Erica couldn’t bring herself to read it for weeks after her father gave her galleys. ‘I knew that my mother was crushed by the slivers of it she’d read,’ Erica writes, ‘and I was in no hurry to join her.’ But eventually she made her way into her father’s relentless 500-page ‘depiction of marriage as a stifling, irredeemable purgatory’. From her point of view at 22, the chapter titled ‘My Daughter Is Unhappy’ was the killer. It was built on naked theft: ‘years of verbatim conversations’ between Erica and her father which he had commandeered for the book. Erica was stung by her father’s bitter judgment expressed in Slocum’s bleak words, which described the daughter’s life as ‘so barren of hope that I find myself grieving silently alongside her, as though at an empty coffin or grave in which her future is dead already.’

‘How could you write about me that way?’ she demanded.

‘What makes you think you’re interesting enough to write about?’ Heller replied.

Nearly forty years have passed since that cruel exchange, and it is clear from Erica’s book that with diligence she found a way to love and forgive the old man. But nothing can really dim its cold dismissal, or soften the fury of the manner in which he cast off his wife. Daugherty seems a fair-minded man but he can’t find much to blame Shirley for in this mid-life explosion. She was sweet, funny and patient. It’s a fair guess that guilt made Heller murderous. The breach widened until Heller said he was leaving. Shirley asked him why. In Lucky Bruce, Friedman records Heller’s reply, which he was told by Vogel, who knew Heller as well as any man. ‘It is because you are old and fat and ugly,’ Heller explained.

That sounds like a lot of things Heller said when his mood was dangerous and there’s no good reason to think Vogel got it wrong. Erica struggled to understand how things could have ended so badly, and it was Vogel, often asked, who told her what she believes now. Vogel was crazy about Shirley; he thought she was beautiful, smart and funny and that Heller married to Shirley was the luckiest man in New York. Heller never stopped loving Shirley, of that Vogel was certain. ‘But what the hell happened to them?’ Erica demanded when her mother was dying of cancer, and sending flowers was almost more than Heller could bring himself to do. ‘What happened?’ said Vogel. ‘They were meshuggah.’

That was Joseph Heller the man. Heller the artist dropped everything in 1948, the year he published his early stories, to figure out what he wanted his first book to say. It was the success of the competition that brought him up short. First had come The Gallery, John Horne Burns’s novel about the Allied occupation of Naples, which Heller admired. That gave him pause. Then Norman Mailer’s huge war novel, The Naked and the Dead, stopped him cold. Heller realised immediately that any war novel he was then likely to write would simply disappear in Mailer’s penumbra. Heller later told an interviewer that Mailer was an ‘illusionist’. By that Heller meant somebody who could write a compelling story with characters a reader could care about – what people generally have in mind when they speak of ‘a great read’ or ‘a great book’. It was five years before Heller came up with the sentences about Someone falling in love with the chaplain and felt he was ready to resume.

Readers of Catch-22 will find the novel’s broad outline in Heller’s war, which began with his enlistment in New York in October 1942. Over the next 18 months he was sent to various schools, commissioned as a lieutenant in the US Army Air Corps, trained as a bombardier-navigator, and assigned to the 488th Bomb Squadron of the 340th Bomb Group based at Alesan Air Field on the island of Corsica. On arrival in May 1944 he was directed to a six-man tent, where he soon learned that one of the cots had been left untouched since its previous occupant had been killed on a bombing raid over Ferrara. Yossarian in the novel is also assigned to a tent containing a ‘dead man’ – a lieutenant killed so quickly after he arrived (two hours) that he was never officially entered in the unit’s roster, which meant he didn’t exist, his effects couldn’t be removed, and nobody was assigned to the cot in which he never slept. The real dead man in Heller’s tent was named Pinkard. The fictional dead man in Yossarian’s tent was also identified: ‘His name was Mudd.’

For the duration of his war – May to October 1944 – Heller flew bombing missions over Italy and southern France. Readers with an appetite for detail should follow Daugherty’s example and consult Daniel Setzer’s ‘Historical Sources for the Events in Joseph Heller’s Novel, Catch-22,’ easily found online. There you will learn that on 24 May, Heller flew his first mission. Poggibonsi was the target. Anti-aircraft fire – the infamous flak – was nil. The mission was what they called a milk run. Heller’s 35th and 36th missions were flown on 8 and 15 August against a bridge in Avignon. A second mission was flown on the 15th against Issambres Point, but was aborted because of cloud cover. On the second Avignon mission, however, the flak was heavy and accurate; a plane was shot down and only three chutes were seen to open. Heller’s 60th and final mission was on 15 October. After flying to Naples in January 1945 to ship home, Heller did not again board a plane for many years.

Catch-22 has a flavour not easy to describe. The characters are many – Lieutenant Nately and Nately’s whore, Clevinger (who disappears one day with his plane in a cloud), Colonels Cathcart, Moodus and Korn; Generals Peckem and Dreedle, Major ______ de Coverley, Doc Daneeka, Milo Minderbinder (the Donald Trump of black marketeers); Sergeant Towser, Dunbar, the soldier in white, Major Major (whose first and middle names are also Major, and who has been promoted to Major by an IBM processing error); Chaplain Tappman, Nurse Duckett, two agents from the Criminal Investigation Division, Hungry Joe, Orr, Dobbs, Huple – on it goes. These characters are all crisply described. Most are in passionate pursuit of their own preposterous schemes. Several have tragic fates. None has achieved calm acceptance of the necessity for personal sacrifice in war. All are subject to the mad logic embodied in Catch-22. The logic can be observed at work in the refusal of a girl in Rome to marry Yossarian because he’s crazy, and he’s crazy because he wants to marry her. Yossarian finds himself crucified on Catch-22. The book is built around Yossarian’s fear of death, casual at first, growing as his friends disappear one by one, obsessive after the ghastly raid on Avignon in which Yossarian tries to help the second most important character in the book, Snowden, about whose life and character we are told virtually nothing.

From the horror over Avignon, Yossarian comes to understand two things. One of them explains why Catch-22 changed the world. The other explains Heller as well as he can be explained. The thing that the world found impressive was Yossarian’s moment of illumination over Avignon – how he fitted into the big picture. The short answer was nowhere. Watching Snowden bleed, thinking about the roster of his dead friends, Yossarian sees with perfect clarity what is going on: the world is trying to kill him. The Germans firing at him from the ground, the pilots taking him in close over targets, the officers picking the targets, the warlords in Washington running the war: none care a damn about him and all are trying to kill him, just as they have killed a roster of his friends. Yossarian is desperate to stop flying – ‘to live for ever or die in the attempt’. Standing in the way is the doozy of all catches – Catch-22. Doc Daneeka assures him that he can be relieved of further missions for medical reasons – if Yossarian is crazy, for example. But if he asks to be grounded, well, that proves he isn’t crazy, and must go on flying. Getting the point at last, Yossarian jumps the traces and heads for Sweden.

The deeply subversive idea behind Yossarian’s flight, perhaps the sole significant American contribution to existential philosophy, is not tacked on at the end, but explored throughout the book. Yossarian is not simply rejecting the sermons and civic lessons of childhood, beginning with Dulce et decorum est. He is repositioning himself in the universe, moving from the periphery to the centre. Great war books are usually about the magnitude and sorrow of loss; Catch-22 is about the insanity required of any man to imagine that the madness of war has anything to do with him. In war, what the world wants and what any sane man wants are radically at odds. Since that is the case, the sane man’s answer is always no. Many found this idea, clothed in humour as it was, initially attractive, but then thought again. One such was the Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, who concluded on reflection that Catch-22 had done ‘moral, spiritual and intellectual harm’ by undermining support for American military endeavours Podhoretz happened to back. But it is not just Podhoretz who felt the sting; anybody hoping to recruit Yossarian (or Heller) for projects requiring personal sacrifice for a greater good would get the same brisk answer.

But Yossarian in Catch-22, and Heller in life, extracted a second bitter conclusion from the horror over Avignon. The description of Snowden’s death is harrowing. It arrives on page 436 in my copy after numerous glancing mentions beginning as early as page 48, all pointing unmistakably to something no man would wish to remember. Yossarian’s friend Dobbs (later killed) urges Yossarian to make his way to the back of the plane to help a wounded man – ‘a vaguely familiar kid’. That’s it for the personal history of Snowden. The tail gunner has fainted at the sight of the wounded man, which revolts Yossarian as well. ‘The wound Yossarian saw was in the outside of Snowden’s thigh, as large and deep as a football.’

Yossarian goes to work applying a tourniquet, pouring white sulfanilamide crystals into the bloody hole, snipping away clothing to get at the leg, covering the wound with a cotton compress.

‘I’m cold,’ Snowden says.

‘There, there,’ says Yossarian.

The fate of Snowden requires almost five pages to unfold fully. It’s what I admired extravagantly in my youth: a great piece of writing, the sensations and turns of mind each described precisely in its proper turn. The reader is as focused on Snowden as Yossarian, looking cautiously, proceeding slowly, just as Yossarian does. It’s not somebody we know and care about who is undergoing this ordeal, just a creature of flesh and blood. At about the moment Yossarian thinks he has Snowden under control and out of danger, Snowden, ‘with just the barest movement of his chin’, points down towards his armpit. There Yossarian notes a stain, oddly coloured. Things aren’t as he thought. Snowden has sustained another wound under his flak suit. Yossarian rips back the snaps of the flak suit. The jacket opens suddenly: ‘Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile.’ Yossarian forces himself to look. ‘Here was God’s plenty, all right … liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, stomach and bits of the stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten that day for lunch.’ This scene is the climax of Catch-22 and what Heller believed to be the central insight of his life: ‘The grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor … Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret.’

For Heller personally this was the big thing: the discovery that in the end, for all of life’s ceaseless wanting, thinking and feeling, a man is only meat. Heller is not the first writer in the history of the world to get the picture, but it hit him harder than it does most. The big thing is the reason Heller did not go to funerals. It is the reason he did not want to think about Shirley dying of cancer. It is the reason Closing Time is the title of the sequel to Catch-22, and the reason everybody in the book is dying, especially the character Lew Rabinowitz, who takes 35 years to let cancer do to him what German flak did to Snowden in twenty minutes. It is the reason Heller used the same wisecrack over and over: ‘I’m not planning on dying.’

Heller’s friends were not strangers to the big secret. At one of the lunches at Barrister’s, when the gang were all getting on in years, Mario Puzo announced to the company, ‘Gentlemen. We are old. And we are going to die.’

Bruce Jay Friedman, kidding around, cited his status as the youngest at the table and begged the group for a dispensation. He didn’t want to have to die.

But Joseph Heller was not kidding around. He told him, ‘Forget it.’