In the second world war, Joseph Heller was an American airman based in Corsica. He flew 60 missions over Italy and the south of France. He was the guy who pressed the
button to release the bombs. Sometimes, he was terrified; at one point, he had a kind of existential crisis at the thought that the
Germans were trying to kill him. Many years later, he wrote Catch-22, a brilliant novel about Yossarian, a terrified American airman in the throes of an existential crisis. Catch-22 was published 50 years ago, and here are two books to commemorate the anniversary — a long one by a Texan biographer, and a short one by Heller’s 59-year-old daughter.
Both of these books are good. Tracy Daugherty is interested in amassing details about Heller’s life and work, and then looking for patterns; Erica Heller tells us first-hand stories about stuff like her parents’ horrible divorce, and their illnesses and deaths. The mental cruelty! She writes about it calmly and stoically. Daugherty’s book is about a novelist who had moments of greatness, and who also got divorced, became ill, and died. Erica Heller’s book is about a man whose life led up to a really, really painful divorce, who then became ill, and who, during this time, wrote some novels, one of which, Catch-22, was brilliant, although, as she points out, she hasn’t read it.
Particularly in Daugherty’s book, you get the sense that Heller’s life, as an author, had a funny shape. He grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn, during the Depression. He went to war. He came back, safe and more or less sound, even though he was a bit neurotic. For 15 years, he processed his thoughts about the war into fiction. During this time, he went to college, taught in college, and worked in advertising. Then he wrote his masterpiece, a book good enough to be commemorated 50 years into the future. And then … nothing, for ages. Frustration. Anxiety. Affairs. Moderate drinking. Lots of overeating. Would he ever be able to match his first book?
Tragically, no. I’ll tell you why I think it’s tragic in a moment. First, I’ll give you a few details from Daugherty’s book. Heller’s parents were Russian Jews who came to America in the first years of the last century. The people he thought were his siblings were actually his half-siblings. His father died when he was a kid. At school, he was good-looking and bright. All his life he had a sense of humour that was laconic, verging on mean. He loved girls and money — but you’ll know that, if you’ve read any of his books. He was a gourmande, but hated getting fat, and did a lot of jogging in
middle age. He quit smoking as soon as he saw the reports about the link between tobacco and cancer.
Heller loved his male friends. After Catch-22 became a success, he hung out with Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, Mel Brooks, and a guy called Irving Vogel, whose nickname was Speed, and who comes across in both these books as just about the nicest guy who ever lived. Heller and his buddies used to have weekly sessions in Chinese restaurants in Manhattan. They were obsessed with finding the best lobster dishes, the best this, the best that. In the summer, Heller hung out in the Hamptons. He was a literary celebrity. But all the time, he was like a ticking bomb. How could he possibly follow Catch-22? And what if he couldn’t?
Here’s the tragedy. He couldn’t. But he tried. And (this is my assumption) he knew that, to create a book of quality, he only had one chance: to write about something he understood intimately. The life of a corporate guy, living in Manhattan, who has two kids, doesn’t like his life, doesn’t value his wife, is mean to his daughter, and has affairs. In other words, a book about what Heller himself was like before he wrote Catch-22. Erica Heller writes:
There had been arguments for years between my parents over it, over the fact that it so closely detailed someone who so resembled him and told, in the first person and in such harrowing detail, such an angry tale of one man’s ennui, disgust, and scorching disappointment in, and dissatisfaction with, each member of his family.
The book was Something Happened. It was good. But very bleak. And it helped to destroy Heller’s life.
You can just imagine it, can’t you? Here are the Hellers, Joe and Shirley, living in a huge apartment in the Apthorp building, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Joe, a former adman, is now the celebrity author of Catch-22. Everybody expects his next book to be brilliant. A decade goes by. He still hasn’t written it. The only thing he can think of, with a fighting chance of literary quality, is to write about himself. Every so often, he tells his wife about the characters he’s invented. They’re not characters, she keeps telling him. They’re us. The arguments become bitter. She’s terrified about what might happen. But not as terrified as him.
The split, as described by Erica Heller, is acrimonious, to say the least. Shirley thinks Joe is having an affair. He is. Joe says she’s imagining things. He’s furious. He leaves — three times. Soon after this, he is struck down with a debilitating auto-immune disease that paralyses him. He battles the disease. He flirts with, and then marries, his nurse. He writes a few more books — Good as Gold, which is not bad; God Knows, which is patchy, if brilliant in parts; Picture This, which is a good idea, but poorly executed, and Closing Time, the inevitably disappointing sequel to Catch-22. Erica Heller gets breast cancer, and survives. Shirley Heller gets lung cancer, and dies. One day, in 1999, at the age of 76, Joseph Heller goes to bed, feeling unwell, and never wakes up.
For Yossarian, the main catch was this: if you’re mentally ill, you don’t have to fly any more missions. But if you try to get out of flying missions, you must be sane, so you must fly more missions. For Heller himself, the main catch was that he would never write anything as brilliant ever again. But he would try, and the effort would, in many ways, ruin his life. For years, people would ask him why he had never written anything as good as Catch-22. ‘Who has?’ he would say.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 22, 2011