War Is Heller

Why there are no more Joseph Hellers.

Read Ron Rosenbaum’s appreciation of Catch-22 here.

Joseph Heller 

In the summer of 1961, when Ernest Hemingway shot Ernest Hemingway and proved that “grace under pressure” was a motto easier to admire than to embody, novelists still were the generals of the culture, an officer’s class of swaggering hero-artists: domineering, prickly, aggressive, and conspicuously male. Their defining subject was organized violence, modern war as experienced from within, and they seemed to agree with Poppa and Stephen Crane that however ignoble war’s ways and means might be, its effect on the person was purifying, finally. It erased the contingencies of class and background, stripped away illusion, chased off folly, and offered one and all the same grim sacraments of terror, pain, and loss.

Then, that fall, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 appeared, abruptly downgrading war’s special status as an existential crucible and also, unwittingly, beginning the process of rendering four-star male novelists irrelevant. The book treats war on a par with business or politics (to Heller they were very much the same), portraying it as a system for alienating people from their own interests and estranging them from their instincts. Protocol replaces principle, figures plucked from thin air supplant hard facts, and reason becomes rigamarole. Heller’s island airbase of freaked-out aviators oppressed by cuckoo officers is the ding-a-ling civilian world in microcosm, not an infernal, tragic realm apart. The men who can feel aren’t agonized, they’re addled. The ones who can’t feel (and therefore give the orders) are permanently, structurally annoyed. The naked and the dead are here but invisible to the beribboned and the daft.

Rereading the novel on its 50th birthday, I found it slightly creaky and cranky but fundamentally alert. The dialogue, which relies on circular reasoning from erroneous or irreconcilable premises, churns away mechanically at times, long after its points about pointlessness are made. Yossarian, the gun-shy anti-hero, is losing his mind by preserving his common sense: Not dying, not being killed, is his definition of victory in war, and those who don’t share his thinking, whichever side they’re on, are the enemy. Heller feeds him endless killer lines and arms him with sly, irrefutable arguments, but he resembles a construct rather than a character, just as his nemeses among the brass include many straw men, some badly overstuffed.

The vast influence of the novel outside its covers also dulls its power and distinctiveness. What only Heller could do when it was written, we can all do now, almost reflexively. His tone of insubordinate slapstick and his clever moral inversions are our common, satirical inheritance. When the mess-hall officer Milo Minderbinder bombs the base in order to boost his profits from a fiendishly tricky black-market trading scheme, it once struck readers as a world turned upside down. Now it comes off as standard Hollywood comic hyperbole.

All of this is a measure of Heller’s success, of course, and a tribute to the triumph of his tropes. (The Office is Catch-22 without the blood.) Another gauge of his accomplishment is that there are no more Joseph Hellers, no more glorious literary crusaders who can ambush and sack, all alone, immense and intimidating social edifices. That demolition job’s been done, that project is complete.

In Just One Catch, the first biography of the last of a certain type of lion, English professor Tracy Daugherty shows us an artist whose triumphant iconoclasm set in motion his own extinction. The story begins with the dawn of Heller’s ambition, which was of a distinctive, mid-20th-century kind, blending the yawning hunger of immigrant roots with the arrogance born of imperial citizenship. Almost as soon as Heller left the army, he set about engineering a personal life suitable for sustaining worldly achievement. He married a woman supportive and presentable and promptly invested her loyalty and energy in the project of his own enlargement.

He approached his literary studies the way some men enter finance or medicine: patiently and with a plan. School by school, story submission by story submission, he pushed ahead down a well-marked path. He started his novel in his early 20s and financed the writing by working for corporations (Time Inc., for example) of precisely the sort he unleashed such contempt for among his anti-establishment fans. The Beats, his contemporaries, were off a-wandering, but Heller lacked their itchy fecklessness. Hunkered down at his desk in deepest Manhattan, he plotted his revolution from inside headquarters.

Daugherty’s book is crammed with cultural history as a way of compensating, perhaps, for a scarcity of revealing third-party testimonies and fresh news about Heller’s hush-hush personal life (it’s asserted that he took numerous mistresses, but only a couple of them are specifically mentioned). On his biographer’s map of popular history, Heller is situated right next to Dylan as an idol of youthful insurrection. And his politics lay to the left, no doubt about it. He hated Nixon, loathed Kissinger, backed Eugene McCarthy for president, and adamantly opposed the Vietnam War.

But Heller wasn’t a rope-sandaled dropout by any means, despite a flirtation with wearing strings of love beads given to him by his daughter Erica. Once Catch-22 caught on (the belated result of a campaign by his editor, Robert Gottlieb, that was more sustained and multifaceted than any that would ever be attempted now, in the era of sink-or-swim publishing), Heller got cracking erecting around himself a model American Century good life. The Fire Island beach house, spacious apartment in historic building, offsite writing studio (and adultery den): They were his as soon as he could pay for them, and all the rich restaurant food that he could eat, too.

By 1974, when he published his second novel, the businessman confessional Something Happened, Heller had assembled a circle of friends who weren’t, for the most part, the usual suspects from New York’s swinging public intellectual scene. * Instead of Mailer, Sontag, and their ilk, he hung with an earthier, lower-maintenance bunch: Mel Brooks; Mario Puzo, the author of The Godfather; and Speed Vogel, a feisty oddball about town from a wealthy real-estate clan. As described in his daughter Erica’s new memoir, Yossarian Slept Here, the raucous men’s nights centered on Chinese restaurants and boozy immersion in an invented card game based on horse racing. Heller wasn’t a rambling bohemian, hungry for adventure and sensation. He was mostly holed up in his study: His book-writing routine was geological, involving the piling up of layers of notes over periods of several years. And when he wasn’t busy building chapters, he read in his chair, played classical music records, enjoyed the ocean view from his vacation house, and made the rounds of higher-end book parties, shamelessly basking in his fame.

It was a peculiar sort of fame for a mocker of privileged complacency, not cultish at all but handsome and expansive, a catered affair with top-shelf liquor. Heller, unlike the Pynchons and the Vonneguts with whom he was often grouped artistically, wrote best-sellers, drew record-setting advances, and hauled in paperback royalties galore, all at a time when America’s reading public didn’t need Oprah to steer them toward serious literature. The notion that art must keep its distance from commerce simply didn’t compute for Heller. His big-shot literary lineage went back to James Jones and other such titans of wallet-fattening, shipped out by the vanload, see-what-your-whole-office-is-talking-about prose. Heller belonged to all of society, not just to the refined minority. To consider oneself half-civilized, one had either to read him or pretend to.

As I said, not a type we have with us, quite, anymore. Philip Roth, you say? Too inward, too high-strung, too trapped in the gravity field of his obsession. Jonathan Franzen? His exhaustive, itemized emotional inventories of comfy but unfulfilled Midwestern types and his virtue-fueled indictments of baddies such as corporate polluters are controlled releases of steam, not savage, concerted do-or-die assaults. And David Foster Wallace’s lampoons, though verbally lavish, tended to end up as tight, self-conscious spirals. They’re engrossing but seldom explosive. By contrast, a Heller novel (even the later ones dismissed by critics as the spasms of an atrophying Goliath) hit the shelves with an echoing blunt impact. God Knows, his retelling of the King David story? Even if you were of age when it came out in 1984, and even if, like lots of folks, including lots of Heller fans, you skipped it, you probably could be hypnotically regressed to the month of its on-sale date by gazing at its bold, familiar cover.

The life summarized and analyzed in the biography is tough to pin down or get a vivid feeling for in other than fuzzy, period-based terms. The life more closely, affectionately rendered in Heller’s daughter’s memoir belongs to the my-father-the-author genre: Dad was playful, caustic, inaccessible, and, as he aged, pensive-needy-regretful. Merge both drafts of the script, the story still feels old hat. Lots of eating and drinking and furtive, nonspousal tumbles. A vicious, blood-pressure-elevating divorce. Speeches, dinners, ceremonies, and trips arranged around the great man’s celebrity. A health crisis, stunning and grave but slowly recovered from. Expiring friends. Diminishing powers. Money insufficient, money abundant, money wasted, money regained. A generic existence for an author of stature who, partly due to changing times and partly due to his brilliant exhaustion of his novelist-peers’ grand subject, grew ever more isolated on Olympus.

Something is missing. The place to find it is in Something Happened, Heller’s best book, about a spiritually stalled executive whose marriage feels like a form of house arrest, whose kids have grown woundingly incomprehensible, and whose job gives him the air-conditioned willies. The novel is a stupendous aggregation of the masked observation, suppressed emotions, and behind-closed-doors domestic trials that consume the best part of everyone’s mortal journey but seemed to dominate Heller’s in particular. Unlike Catch-22, whose syncopated patters seem stagey now and whose message feels like it’s delivered in a stamped envelop, there’s nothing stiff or willed here.

Something Happened is excessive in its candor, immoderate in its attention to detail, and inexcusable in its brutality—a wildly anti-social confession full of thoughts that we all think but mustn’t ever speak aloud, lingered on in a way that might well kill us. It is the sort of uncensored damning statement that seems to demand some retributive calamity in the real life of its author. Perhaps Heller’s illness or his familial breakdown amounted to just such a payback. He knew. We can’t. We can’t even guess, since his kind no longer exists. In our national literary history, Joseph Heller was a climactic figure. He dismantled his generation’s largest subject and it won’t need such treatment again, or at least not for some time.

The uniform Heller wore—part flyboy’s flak jacket, part corporate dark suit, part hip major author’s half-unbuttoned sports shirt—fits no one nowadays. After a while, it didn’t even fit him.

Correction, Aug. 3, 2011: This article originally stated that Something Happened was published in 1970. (Return to the corrected sentence.)