Joseph Heller Biography Catches the Man

Tracy Daugherty debuts new book

Joseph Heller in 1979.

Catch-22 made Joseph Heller famous, but it made itself a lot more famous. It was a book so big it broke free of its author, then flattened him like a boulder. His failures were to it as fertilizer.

“In general, his critical reputation declined,” writes Tracy Daugherty in Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller (St. Martin’s Press, 560 pages, $35.00). “Catch-22 grew in stature.” When Heller got accused of plagiarism, the book’s sales surged. When he wrote a bad movie, they soared. It was the touchstone for every disparagement of his subsequent books. It was also the touchstone for many disparagements of him. “Either that guy is wearing a mask, or he didn’t write that book,” insisted one student of Heller at Yale. When, at the end of his life, Heller returned to pen a sequel, “people were mad at Joe for messing with their memories.” The artist as an old man found himself unwelcome in the mansion of his youth.

Joseph Heller was born poor on Coney Island in 1923. He served as a bombardier in the Second World War, attended New York University on the G.I. Bill, then went to Columbia and Oxford on merit. A spell of learned dithering ensued. Heller tried to write fiction  and got cowed. Then he tried to teach it, and got bored. By the mid-’50s, when he was in his 30s, Heller had abandoned academe for Madison Avenue, where he got a job writing copy for Henry Luce. (Heller’s second novel, Something Happened, was an inspiration for Mad Men.) Here, Heller learned to drink martinis. The dithering had become rewarding. “A few executive officers discovered they were alcoholic … and a few men, like Joe, kept getting promoted,” Mr. Daugherty informs us. Bosses depended on him. Colleagues bowed to him. He had a beautiful wife. He cheated on her anyway. “[Heller] did not have it in him to become an aesthetic monk,” Mr. Daugherty writes. Heller admired Dostoevsky, but he didn’t go home to a garret.

Instead, he went home early. “‘The novel, you know,’ people whispered whenever Joe and Shirley [Heller’s wife] left a party early,” Mr. Daugherty writes. Heller hadn’t sworn off fiction; he’d just deferred it to the night shift. “[Heller] had drawers and drawers full of file cards,” recalled a friend. “He was very organized.” When the Second World War ended, in 1945, the race to write the great Second World War novel broke out. There were frontrunners. And then there were those who nobody knew were running. A decade on, unknown to most, Heller saw himself in the race. The gray flannel suit overlay fluorescent ambitions. “Joe … recognized that contemporary American writing, hobbled by outmoded conventions, was unable to document the nation’s new realities,” Mr. Daugherty writes.

It was a heady period for American fiction. It was also a hair-raisingly competitive period. As you tried to get going on your war novel, other people kept coming out with their war novels, which were alarmingly good. “Suddenly, World War II belonged to Norman Mailer,” Mr. Daugherty writes. In 1948, Mailer wrote The Naked and the Dead. The book had flaws, but it was big enough to transfigure its author with fame. “[Mailer and I] were about the same age … and it put me in my place,” Heller later wrote. Mailer wasn’t alone. “[Heller] decided he was falling farther off the planet when James Jones’s From Here to Eternity appeared [in 1951],” Mr. Daugherty writes. In 1957, Jack Kerouac published On the Road.

“Mailer and others were mired in received notions of craft,” Mr. Daugherty writes. As Heller’s book lumbered into being, it posed a salient contrast to the work of his peers. It was not another James Jones novel. It was not a brooding epic. “War was not [Heller’s] primary subject,” Mr. Daugherty writes. “It was a pretext for verbal pyrotechnics and social critique.” Heller was trying to do War and Peace à la Lenny Bruce, and the dissonance made editors squeamish. It wasn’t easy on the writer, either. “At one point, Joe was working with at least nine different drafts, both handwritten and typed.”

Eventually, an agent emerged. She found an editor. Robert Gottlieb, a youthful ruler over the depleted offices of Simon and Schuster (and now an Observer contributing writer), decided to take on Heller’s book. “Robert Gottlieb was just a kid, really,” Mr. Daugherty writes. “And the company was his to play with.” In 1953, a 10-page excerpt of Heller’s manuscript had appeared under the title Catch-18. By the time it came out, in 1961, the title was Catch-22. Its author was antsy. When Catch-22 got a bad review on page 50 of The New York Times Book Review, Heller memorized it. He would have been better off memorizing the weather. The book has sold 10 million copies.

“It was past its prime before it ever came into its own,” as Mr. Daugherty writes of Coney Island. In his writing, Heller was a master of the hairpin turn—the absurd swerve from expectation that sends the reader skidding into laughter and perplexity. From Catch-22: “Nately’s mother, a descendant of the New England Thorntons, was a Daughter of the American Revolution. His father was a Son of a Bitch.” Heller’s life mimicked this pattern of his art. Freed by Catch-22 to pursue his fiction, Heller would discover that his debut had been his crescendo. As a reviewer of a late novel, Picture This, observed, “[Heller’s] biggest mistake was writing his best novel first.” Or as Martin Amis wrote in an essay on Vladimir Nabokov, “Writers die twice: once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies.” Heller’s talent had the lifespan of a Roman candle.

Age brought Heller grief. He put on weight. His promiscuity snowballed. He was bamboozled by the call of Hollywood. Heller had relished the success of Catch-22, but he soon came to rue the expectations it had raised. “The fear that he might not be able to pull off another book never left him,” Mr. Doherty writes. What books Heller wrote always sold, but tended to receive a wan welcome from critics. Something Happened got applause. Good as Gold got heckled. The rest were met with ferocity. In 1981, Heller left his wife. He was found to have Guillain–Barré syndrome a year later. “When they name a disease after two guys, it’s got to be terrible,” said novelist Mario Puzo, a friend of Heller. Heller survived, but with a fraction of his former vitality. He would marry one of his nurses within a few years. “She knew little about Joe’s literary accomplishments, except he ‘looked like Norman Mailer.’” Soon, Heller was envying Mailer the pluck it must have taken to “have four wives and stab one.”

“A writer can only be discovered once,” Heller once remarked. Mr. Daugherty has produced the definitive life of Heller, a stringent portrait of the man embedded in a panorama of his era. Affection for his subject sometimes induces Mr. Daugherty into folly. It is, for example, outlandish to credit Heller with changing “the emphasis in fiction from the story to the way the story is told”; Joseph Heller did not invent literary style. For the most part, though, the biographer is clear-eyed about his subject’s shortcomings. Heller wrote an immortal book. Then he lost his mojo. The life is looked upon as a lesson in the transience of excellence. “He could have rested on his laurels, reading from Catch-22 wherever he went, but … he still wanted to write, and to send ripples through American literature.” Once, Heller had it. He still wanted it. He couldn’t get it back. In 1994, “[Heller] reread Catch-22 for the first time in years, and found himself tickled, amazed he’d once commanded such an extensive literary vocabulary. ‘[M]y reaction was, ‘My god, what talent I had.’”

Joseph Heller Biography Catches the Man