Joseph Heller, who embodied masculinity in American postwar literature, for better and for worse, chronicled a major shift in American Jewish identity
To reread Catch-22 is to recognize Heller as, at times, a Jewish Beckett and more often as a comic stylist of limited range, with an inexhaustible affinity for puns, misunderstandings, and non sequiturs. The novel is a single joke repeated ad nauseam, with nausea put forward as one of the few sane responses to war. In Morris Dickstein’s catalog of postwar American fiction, he called it a “static book,” but he at least considered this static conceptually sound. “Heller’s view of war, like his view of the corporation, the government, and the neurotic Jewish family, is that nothing can happen: all involved are stuck in their own rut, perpetual parodies of themselves, acting out roles assigned long ago, a laughable reduction from the fully human.” The fact that it took Heller eight years to write it—on nocturnal breaks from his successful career as an advertising copywriter and less-successful career as a husband and parent of two—meant it became, unmistakably, the right book at the right time, anticipating the coming vogue for anti-establishment insurrection and forming a bridge between the Last Good War and the great countercultural upheaval. Daugherty makes much of the rise of the cheap paperback and its transformation of Catch-22 into an inexpensive totem of rebellion. In a development that would seem impossible today, university students adopted Yossarian as a hero, spray-painting his name on bathroom walls and fashioning an antiwar slogan, “Better Yossarian than Rotarian.”
Everything could have gone differently. The novel was originally titled Catch-18, which was deemed too similar to Leon Uris’ contemporaneous Warsaw Uprising saga Mila 18, and Daugherty’s book contains a comical run-around between Heller and Simon & Schuster editor Bob Gottlieb (no relation to me) over what replacement number would work best. Joe liked the sound of “Catch-11”—“hard consonants followed by vowels, opening up the mouth”—and at one point seemed committed to “Catch-14.” (“It has the same bland and nondescript significance of the original.”) Needless to say, neither “Catch” would have been catchy enough.
Those who read Catch-22 as broad comedy of universal desperation might be surprised to learn how closely it hews to the author’s experience. Nevertheless, Heller chose not to give Yossarian a Jewish name, cannily preferring to depict “somebody who could not be identified … geographically, or culturally, or sociologically.” But Daugherty claims for Yossarian a “profound, unstated Judaism: his sense of worldly exile and intimation of connection to something ancient, even if that something survives only in an instinctual personal ritual.” Whether or not this definition convinces, Daugherty makes it impossible to deny the influence of not just the Marx Brothers but also the rhythms of Yiddish theater and Borscht Belt humor on Heller’s writing. (Daugherty’s biography, which depends on too few interviews, is often distracted by Heller’s cultural context, as if the biographer doesn’t always find his own subject worth the close scrutiny.) We’re meant to be amused by the fact that Heller, upon returning from combat, heads straight to the Grossinger’s Catskills resort for some Yiddish-inflected R&R.
Of Heller’s 1984 God Knows, a fractured and profane first-person retelling of the King David story that one critic called “the longest lounge act never performed in the history of the Catskills,” Daugherty writes that “it became obvious that ‘midrash’ had been Joe’s project all along—as, on some level, it was the task of many Jewish performers, writers, actors, and journalists of his generation: the comic routines of Lenny Bruce; the political analysis in Commentary; the book and motion picture parodies in Mad magazine.” Midrash, the method of biblical exegesis dependent on storytelling, applies to God Knows in a fairly literal manner, but Catch-22’s method of circular logic strikes me as far more Talmudic. That said, because his most popular novels never featured a Jewish protagonist, Heller was rarely framed as a Jewish novelist. It didn’t help that he hung out with Mario Puzo instead of Philip Roth.
Anyway, Roth could not match Heller at his most punishing. In the savage, suffocating Something Happened—Heller’s long-gestating second novel, published in 1974—mid-level corporate executive Bob Slocum indulges his darkest human impulses within the scope of an epic internal monologue. The violence is much more threatening for being so tightly contained. (The many parenthetical asides function like escape valves for excess steam.) He is deeply, unapologetically racist, and he takes quite seriously the notion that he could have a richer life with his children dead—or at least sent away. (For one of his children, Derek, born with serious brain damage, removal to another location is a serious option.) There is no scene of marital spite in American literature quite like the description of Slocum calmly refusing to wake his wife from her night terrors, “allowing it to torture her for as long as it wants to, while I watch her from outside, idly and smugly, leaning on my elbow.”
An artist’s impressions of the “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women” exhibit at Yeshiva University Museum