Joseph Heller, who embodied masculinity in American postwar literature, for better and for worse, chronicled a major shift in American Jewish identity
Among the most celebrated male purveyors of postwar American literature—some of them swaggering and brash, all of them obsessed with codes of masculinity—there was not a lot of firsthand experience of war. Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud didn’t fight in World War II. Saul Bellow sidestepped combat in the merchant marine. So did Ralph Ellison. Updike was too young to fight, and anyway, just try to picture that. Pynchon joined the Navy, but he did so 10 years after the screaming came across the sky. James Baldwin shipped out to Europe after the war ended. J.D. Salinger fought in the Battle of the Bulge, but he never wrote about the war. (Yes, Kurt Vonnegut survived his own side’s firebombing of Dresden and wrote about it.) Norman Mailer never shrank from a good brawl, but he saw little combat in the Philippines, and he ended his Army tenure as a cook.
Measure patriotism however you will, but Joseph Heller—2nd Lieutenant, 340th Bombardment Group, 488th Squadron, stationed on the island of Corsica—was intimately acquainted with danger. Knowing that the average life expectancy of a bombardier in heavy combat was three minutes, he could not have been faulted for asking: Why me? And his imagined interlocutor could have logically responded, as Maj. Danby does in Heller’s Catch-22: “Suppose everybody on our side felt that way?” To which Heller, like the reflexively subversive Yossarian, his kindred spirit and most enduring literary creation, would have to answer: “Then I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way.”
In American letters, the term “postwar” connotes a decisive, epochal rupture; it’s a time-stamped signifier of a modern sensibility buffeted by prosperity, psychoanalytic terminology, and the heady prospect of civil and sexual liberation that broke an overstuffed century in half. But the emphasis in literary histories, especially those written about Jewish American novelists, has usually fallen on the post and not the war. Approximately 550,000 American Jews fought in World War II, and their shared sacrifice, according to historian Deborah Dash Moore, made them “agents of a shift in the legitimization of American Jewish identity.” No major novel has been written about this experience.
Jews did write postwar war novels, of course, probing and essential ones. Mailer’s social-realist The Naked and the Dead, published in 1948, shocked readers with its naughty language and insufficient moral clarity, questioning as it did the motives of good soldiers. Formally, though, it seems a holdover from the 1930s proletarian novel. Heller’s Catch-22, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, tipped the blasphemy scale on its side, treating the logic of war as an elaborate, absurdist con game. Though its specific brand of carnivalesque lunacy was tied to one Brooklyn Jew’s experience of World War II, the novel’s countercultural cachet soared a few years after publication, when the war in Vietnam sank into quagmire. For Alfred Kazin, Heller’s novel is “really about the Next War, and thus about a war which will be without limits and without meaning, a war that will end when no one is alive to fight it.” Catch-22 has become many things in the intervening half-century, including assigned reading for just about every high-school student, but its cumulative effect is still shocking.
For Tracy Daugherty, author of Just One Catch, the first full-length biography of Joseph Heller, published this year, the experience of combat is key not just to Heller’s most justifiably celebrated novel but to the comic mindset that would invent at least a few of the terms by which 20th-century America could begin to process and understand itself. Heller’s entire career—which, in Daugherty’s telling, began in the “womb” at the front of a B-25 bomber, moments before the plane took a deep and terrifying dive to avoid enemy flak—was a high-octane delivery system for complaint: He distilled a life’s worth of grievances about war, mortality, women, and religion into a hilarious and stylistically sophisticated form yet still couldn’t quite attain a seat at the table of recognized genius.
You would think that the lasting cultural import of his work would be enough to qualify Heller as a great American writer, or even a great Jewish writer, but Daugherty’s book makes clear that neither designation ever stuck. Born in 1923 to Russian immigrant parents in Yiddish-speaking Coney Island, and after attending NYU on the G.I. Bill, Heller began his literary career as an imitator, aping the terse, dialogue-based, and decidedly goyish rhythms of Hemingway, William Saroyan, and John O’Hara, whose collective convictions a mature Heller would later describe as “hard-nosed, sexist attitudes … embodying … implicit assessments of materialism, wealth, Babbitry, and ideals of masculinity and male decency that I … accepted as irreducibly pure.” The New Yorker rejected his early stories, telling him to write from his own experience. He took the magazine’s advice, but it never published his work.
Just One Catch unfolds as a kind of tragicomedy about a genuinely admired, widely read author who ached to be called extraordinary. Even Heller’s obnoxious bad behavior, which included rampant infidelity, arrogance, and a devilish insistence on taking the best portion of food on the table for himself, seems fairly run-of-the-mill behavior for a mid-century male novelist. A man of insatiable appetites, Heller wanted to write Great Books, but more than that—in an age of monumental literary hubris, just before postmodernism arrived to loosen the threads of historical continuity—he wanted to write outsize, indispensable books. Later in life, he would self-deprecatingly temper this disappointment, in terms that seem inarguable. He never wrote anything as good as Catch again, but as he astutely boasted to one interviewer: “Who has?”
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.”
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