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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)

Heller frightens us most by developing a logic for Slocum’s anomie that seems both universal and impeccable: “In my department, there are six people who are afraid of me, and one small secretary who is afraid of all of us. I have one other person working for me who is not afraid of anyone, not even me, and I would fire him quickly, but I’m afraid of him.” Something Happened is sometimes lost in the shuffle of postwar suburban masterworks, in large part because it couldn’t work as a screenplay. You can sense the novel’s faintest echoes in Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End and in the film Office Space.

On a sentence-by-sentence level, it might be most appropriate to note an affinity between Heller and Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, except that Heller’s novel offers no reassuring sense of psychological derangement. Slocum is too frighteningly banal to reach for a chainsaw. This is a properly suburban male, married with children. “Life is a whole lot smaller and cheaper in this second book,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut, in an admiring review. “It has shrunk to the size of a grave, almost.”

The bureaucracy of Catch-22 that exists to feed human beings into a death trap hadn’t perished with the war—or merely been absorbed into another war. Military men had filled the power vacuum left by FDR’s death, installing efficiency and consumerist standardization as a new social ethic. “It was after the war, I think, that the struggle really began,” Slocum says, underlining Something Happened’s muted but provocative relationship to Heller’s defining subject. Slocum never dwells at length on his experience in World War II—and given his age, the absence is glaring—remembering his Army service as a halcyon period defined by “freedom of choice, more room in which to move about. … I was outside my family, had no wife, job, parent, children, met no one I cared for. I had no ties.” The “why me” that animates Catch-22 was extended here in other directions. Why, for one thing, did Slocum, like Heller, have to settle down with wife and kids moments before the sexual revolution?

If Heller’s family could survive Something Happened, said Heller’s buddy Mel Brooks, it could probably survive anything. To complement the publication of Just One Catch, this summer Heller’s daughter, Erica, released her own memoir, Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22. She joins Susan Cheever, Janna Malamud Smith, and Alexandra Styron in writing books about their postwar literary patronage. Erica Heller hadn’t waited for dad to die, in 1999, before issuing, in 1975, her first response. Her public riposte to Something Happened was a Harper’s essay titled “It Sure Did.” If Heller’s immediate family had wanted to use his fiction as an excuse to sever all ties with a heartless, caustic madman, they could have started much earlier; the first story he ever published was called “I Don’t Love You Any More,” about a young Army veteran who returns home to his wife with the idea that marriage is unnatural. Story magazine printed it when Joe and his soon-to-be wife, Shirley, were finalizing wedding arrangements. The magazine called the story fiction, and Shirley chose to read it in that spirit; they were married for 39 years.

The hilarious Good as Gold, published in 1979, was Heller’s last major novel, written before he developed debilitating Guillain-Barré syndrome, and its subject seems in retrospect to have been inevitable. “Gold had been asked many times to write about the Jewish experience in America,” it begins. If anyone was primed to write the first comic satire of the neoconservative movement, it was Heller, for whom the idea of Jews making war was not entirely foreign. The trenchancy of Good as Gold’s satire comes from Heller’s intimate understanding of the tragic outcomes of Washington’s ego-driven power games, as well as his familiarity with the self-appointed diplomats who peopled Manhattan’s little magazines. (Daugherty’s book contains some rich material about the mutual enmity between Heller and ex-friend Norman Podhoretz.) The neocons may have understood war as an abstract tool, but Heller felt it in his kishkes. The movement’s unstated goal was to turn the postwar era into a perpetually pre-war environment, and Heller had to lodge his complaint: After all, the postwar era had been very good to him.

“One is a rebel or one conforms,” wrote Norman Mailer, with pugnacious confidence. So, was Heller an organization man or a rebel? A longtime advertising executive, he understood the game of developing the wants, needs, and desires that propelled postwar suburban consumption, and he cashed in accordingly. His unprecedented, nearly $2 million advance for Good as Gold would help transform literary publishing into an industry that—for a short time—spent wildly and demanded blockbusters in return. In a way, Heller’s popularity—more than many great American novelists, he was (and is) actually read—ushered the industry toward its obsolescence.

Heller beat the statistical odds to survive the war and outlast Guillain-Barré, dying of a heart attack in 1999, and he wrote about his survival not in a spirit of gratitude but as a chapter in his quest for immortality. It’s humbling to consider how far he got toward realizing that impossible task. Even after he discovered the inimitable textures of his comic voice, he remained methodical and began his novels only after envisioning and completing a perfect opening sentence: His obsessive focus on beginnings was a way of keeping his mind off too clear a vision of the end.

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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

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