Yesterday marked the centenary of the birth of Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, Something Happened, Closing Time, and other novels, story collections, plays, and autobiographical nonfiction. Heller was prominent among the riotous talent, often seen as lacking in decorum or respect, that emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Catch-22 (begun in 1953, published in 1961) was slow to catch on in the States, but once the public got it, it stuck. Though set in WWII, the book, as a savage satire of the military and bureaucracy, fit the Vietnam-era, counterculture sensibility perfectly. It continues to have influence and is currently number seven on the Modern Library Top 100 Best Novels list. The Times said, “When an interviewer told Mr. Heller that he had never written anything [else] as good as Catch-22, the author shot back, ‘Who has?’” The book made him rich.
Heller died almost a quarter-century ago, in 1999. Kurt Vonnegut was quoted then saying, “Oh God, this is a calamity for American literature,” perhaps in part because of their similarities. In the 50th anniversary edition of Catch-22, critic Alfred Kazin compares it to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse (and other, non-WWII, books such as Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet), saying that they are less about WWII and “really about The Next War…which will be without limits and without meaning, a war that will end only when no one is alive to fight it.” The “urgent emotion” in these books is “of being trapped,” of “being led to execution….”
Kazin reads this as the postwar condition, especially after the technologies and efficiencies of death developed for and used in WWII. (Vonnegut and Heller, born six months apart, both served in the war and famously experienced different aspects of aerial warfare in the same theater.)
“In all my works there is a consciousness of danger—a danger to life,” Heller told Charlie Rose in 1994. Of course this is always true but resonates strongly now in the age of infection, another war in Europe, and “the ocean at your door.”
And yet, through his character John Yossarian, Heller reveals a moral belief in endurance, in a non-systemic and arguably more humane personal ethics, and in caring for others. In a novel about gruesome death, life not only exists but is sometimes supremely valued. Like many great books, it relies on hope.
Erica Heller, the writer’s daughter and herself the author of Yossarian Slept Here, wrote in the New York Observer, two weeks after her father’s death, “The simple truth is, Joe Heller never planned to die. He frequently boasted that he looked and felt younger and better than all of his contemporaries. He wasn’t wrong. For him, there was always a future trip to take, book to write, meal to decimate, piece of music to swoon to. Nobody I’ve ever met had laughter as rich, and those around him were richer for it. As one of his most cherished friends, Speed Vogel, said to me, Dad’s dying was ‘a dirty joke.’ He was right. It was also one of very few he’d ever made that no one could laugh at.”
There are many dramatic jokes gone unfunny in Heller’s work (as in Vonnegut’s). One I always think of involves Yossarian’s pilot and friend McWatt, whose idea of a good joke is to fly his bomber nap-of-the-earth, ground level, in order to put a fright into Yossarian and others. Yossarian has to threaten to choke him to death to make him stop. After McWatt accidentally chops a boy in half with his propeller performing this nonsense, Yossarian, on the ground, realizes his friend is going to kill himself:
[He] went running uncontrollably down the whole length of the squadron after McWatt’s plane [thousands of feet in the sky], waving his arms and shouting up at him imploringly to come down, McWatt, come down; but no one seemed to hear, certainly not McWatt, and a great, choking moan tore from Yossarian’s throat as McWatt turned again, dipped his wings once in salute, decided oh, well, what the hell, and flew into a mountain.
Coming where it does, three-fourths of the way through the novel, after so much ridiculous waste and pain, the scene is so sad I can no longer explain it to others in person, only in writing. Yossarian’s futile gesture of compassion, even love, echoes with his repetition through the book of a comforting but useless pat and, “There, there,” to a dying man.
In Heller’s writing no one games the system entirely, but in Catch, one unlikely person, by cunning, ingenuity, and hardship, wins a temporary stay. In friendship he had tried to include Yossarian in his salvation scheme, but Yossarian did not know to accept because he could not see what was being offered. Yet Yossarian understands the news of the young man’s win as a triumph of the human spirit.
Gestures, often all we can do for each other, mean hope survives, riotously.