Fifty years ago this October, the debut novel of a World War II veteran and advertising copywriter appeared on bookstore shelves. 10 million or so copies later, Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22 retains its place as a cultural icon of the 1960s. In this first full-length biography, Tracy Daugherty, novelist and professor of English and creative writing, offers a balanced literary and personal portrait of one of the late 20th century’s most influential novelists.
"...more than an academic investigation of Heller’s work, [Daugherty] brings the skill of an accomplished biographer to unearthing the sometimes painful episodes of his subject’s life."
Born in 1923, Joseph Heller grew up in Depression-era Coney Island, the son of Russian immigrants and the youngest of three siblings. Heller was raised in straitened circumstances in a family whose most prominent characteristic seems to have been its emotional chilliness. The loss of his father when he was four represented a lifelong burden, but despite the hardships of those early years, Heller never lost his affinity for the garish, ethnically diverse world of his youth.
Heller’s other formative influence, of course, was his service as a B-25 navigator/bombardier in World War II Europe. In the seven months he found himself based in Corsica, he flew 60 combat missions, in the process training his keen eye on both the characters and the absurdities of the military bureaucracy that would provide the rich store of material for CATCH-22.
Though Heller had several short stories published in respected magazines, the Atlantic Monthly among them, by age 25, CATCH-22 did not appear until he was 38. In the meantime, he worked for years as an advertising copywriter for magazines like Time, Look and McCall’s, all of which played an important role in shaping the cultural landscape of America in the ’50s and ’60s. In the process, as Daugherty describes it, Heller participated with zest in the hard-drinking, sexually adventuresome world of that era's Madison Avenue.
Exploring this pastiche of influences, Daugherty argues persuasively that while Heller was a member of the generation of post-World War II novelists Norman Mailer (THE NAKED AND THE DEAD) and James Earl Jones (FROM HERE TO ETERNITY), he molded the same subject matter into a startlingly different shape. Daugherty recognizes that “War was not [Heller’s] primary subject. It was a pretext for verbal pyrotechnics and social critique.” CATCH-22 thus anticipated and quickly became a totem of the ’60s counterculture, even elevating Heller to a “cultural spokesperson, as CATCH-22 came to be regarded as prophetic about the complexities of Vietnam.” Through his account of Heller’s relationship with famed editor Robert Gottlieb and celebrated agent Candida Donadio, Daugherty reveals that Heller’s career also bridged important, if not necessarily positive, developments in the publishing industry, as it moved into the era of corporate dominance, consolidation and blockbuster advances.
While Daugherty champions several of Heller’s later works --- his 1974 novel SOMETHING HAPPENED (“a poetic meditation on the psyche of a disturbed middle-aged man”) and 1979’s GOOD AS GOLD (“a full critique of neoconservative thought as it developed in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s”) most notable among them --- he seems to understand that Heller spent the rest of his life trying to duplicate his debut novel’s success and cultural relevance. When, in 1994, he yielded to the pressure to produce a sequel --- the novel CLOSING TIME --- the disappointment of both critics and fans was palpable.
Although Heller was influenced by the sensibility of Borscht Belt comedy and the Yiddish theater, he was a serious student of literature, with degrees from NYU and Columbia and a year at Oxford as a Fulbright Scholar to his credit. He absorbed the work of Shakespeare and the Greek philosophers and dramatists, and Daugherty capably discusses those and other influences on his writing.
But Daugherty’s book is more than an academic investigation of Heller’s work, and he brings the skill of an accomplished biographer to unearthing the sometimes painful episodes of his subject’s life. Married for 37 years, a union that produced two children who both became writers (a memoir by his daughter, Erica, is scheduled for publication this month), Heller underwent an acrimonious divorce from his wife Shirley in the early 1980s. In the midst of that battle, he was stricken with Guillain-Barre Syndrome (an illness that introduced him to Valerie Humphries, a nurse who would become his second wife, and that he described in NO LAUGHING MATTER, a memoir co-written with his close friend, Speed Vogel) whose aftereffects troubled him for the rest of his life. Yet, even while coping with these emotional and physical challenges, Heller never lost a zest for life perhaps best expressed in his membership in the Gourmet Club, a group of his friends that included Mel Brooks, Zero Mostel and Mario Puzo, most noteworthy for its eclectic and prodigious appetites.
JUST ONE CATCH ultimately may not attain the status of the definitive Heller biography. But it’s a well-told story that will more than satisfy the countless admirers of Heller’s work, while introducing others to his fascinating life and career.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on August 4, 2011