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War Horse

Joseph Heller, who embodied masculinity in American postwar literature, for better and for worse, chronicled a major shift in American Jewish identity

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Joseph Heller with his wife, Shirley, and son, Ted, in Paris, 1966. (Courtesy Erica Heller)

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.”

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I read Catch 22 and 2 of his other books. They didn’t come close to Catch 22 and IMHO if he hadn’t written Catch 22 first they would never have been published. He was essentially a one book author

yehuda says:

this article is in need of some serious tightening. lord.

John from StL says:

While not mentioned, his book on his experiences with Guillain Barre (No Laughing Matter) is also worth reading.

Mitchell A. Levin says:

I was surprised that you did not include Herman Wouk in your list of post-War Jewish novelists. Wouk served on two minesweepers in the South Pacific during World War II; service that produced “The Caine Mutiny.” This work transcends the war novel genre and is an excellent text for a course of organizational development and/or human behavior. Wouk has had a long and distinguished career in which he has let his writing speak for him as opposed to relying on some sort of celebrity persona in the manner of Norman Mailer, for example. In addition to this, Wouk is an observant Jew whom one could not imagine “taking the best portion of food on the table for himself” let alone thinking that being “a man of insatiable appetites” was the requisite behavior for a male novelist. All of Wouk’s books are not great and a couple were real disappointments but he wrote some fiction and non-fiction that will stand the test of time. On balance, his body of work combined with his behavior as a person put him in a class of under-appreciated literary treasures.

I, too, am surprised that Herman Wouk doesn’t get a mention. War and Remembrance is a classic in the WW2 literature genre.

Jacob.Arnon says:

Joseph Heller may have been a Jew, but he wasn’t a Jewish novelist.

There is nothing Jewish about Catch 22. It’s hero Yossarian is described as an “Assyrian” whatever that meant to Heller.

Even the war in the novel is not exactly WW2. Jews are not even mentioned in the book.

Had they been mentioned and Heller must have known this Yossarian’s anti-war stance would have been seen as cowardice.

A Jew refusing to fight to save the lives of Jews? What kind of Jew is that?

Tablet has a way of minimizing everything really Jewish while making large claims for what is an isn’t Jewish.

Shalom Freedman says:

This was an outstanding informative article. I have never ‘gotten’ Joseph Heller and from this article I better understand what there might have been to ‘get’.
A minor correction. Salinger’s great story ‘For Esme- With Love and Squalor’ does give in a condensed and most aesthetically powerful way his sense of his own war experience.

M. Burgh says:

Salinger’s “A Beautiful Day For Bananafish,” is the devastating portrait of a post-war marriage gone bad. Wouk is too schmaltzy – a voluminous but ultimately 2nd class writer, the nice yin to Uris’s rude yang (also 2nd class). Heller’s work is so far above these other writers as to cast a dark shadow over them.

Jews are indeed mentioned in Catch-22. Clevinger is told that he will be found guilt because “they don’t like Jews. But I’m not Jewish.”

There are many problematic messages with Catch-22. First of those is his black/white view on war.

I think it comes down to identification. Heller never truly felt that American, and opposed wars. He didn’t when it came to Israel.

Most Jews today do not have that distance towards America, which is a direct result of anti-Semitism down on it’s lowest levels ever.

The fact that the author praises the book is likely to the fact that the author is stuck in the same mold as Heller was. (One clue is the author’s use of racial slurs like ‘goyishe’).

Heller’s dismissal of Hemingway et al, who was a greater novelist than he was, was based on a not insignificant part of his race. Which in turn makes Heller look like a very small, bigoted man.

A mind is a such a terrible thing to waste.

Heller to me represents a grieving, unsoothe-able conscience, someone uncomfortable with heroic tales, cheering bands and simplistic platitudes. His work doesn’t make pleasant reading for me, marginal humor not withstanding. Heller seemed to be honest enough not to accept any simple palliatives. He wasn’t sure, it seems, what model of living to follow, but was adamantly sure of many models not to follow and that insecurity obviously distressed him greatly. His wartime experiences seem to have brought home to him intolerable moral and social ambiguities. Others sought to glorify what was billed as the great War Against Fascism (with that great super-fascist ally Stalin)or as a great, unalloyed expression of American virtue and power. Heller brooded about dead or maimed Italian civilians and the traumatic scarring of combatants, especially the American soldiers he got to know. He wrote about that war and war in general as a surrealistic experience drawing from his concrete experience. Heller, like others, could not bring himself to idealize, no Tristan myths to romanticize about. Heller should properly be characterized in the time-honored tradition as Israelish (struggling with God, the notions about God),though the term is not yet recognized in English, rather than Jewish (praising God, Hallelujah, in the comfortable, comforting manner, dumping our sorrows on the Divine). We have come of age, we seek total realism, and it is discomforting. Mystics seek comfort in the ineffable, in knowing and accepting the limits of the human intellect. Anti-mystics such as Heller could never accept that to their grief. B’shalom.


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War Horse

Joseph Heller, who embodied masculinity in American postwar literature, for better and for worse, chronicled a major shift in American Jewish identity