Joseph Heller, who embodied masculinity in American postwar literature, for better and for worse, chronicled a major shift in American Jewish identity
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.
An artist’s impressions of the “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women” exhibit at Yeshiva University Museum