In Just One Catch, his reconstruction of the life of novelist, playwright and screenwriter Joseph Heller, Tracy Daugherty has also illuminated the post-World War II culture of American fiction—from the emergence of Jewish sensibilities as a key narrative element to the influence of mass advertising and television to the corporatization of book publishing. It’s about time for such a comprehensive biography, given the fact that Heller died nearly 12 years ago.
Born to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in 1923 in the grimy but colorful Coney Island section of Brooklyn, Heller would go to war at 19 (assimilating all its horrors and hilarities as an aerial bombardier); attend college under the G.I. Bill; become an English teacher and advertising copywriter; and finally surface as one of the freshest, most distinctive voices among a cadre of gifted peers that included Norman Mailer, James Jones, J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow and Kurt Vonnegut.
Heller’s earliest success was as a short-story writer. It wasn’t until 1953 that he began penning a novel whose working title for years would be Catch-18. After many starts and stops—and some Herculean editing by the soon-to-be legendary Robert Gottlieb—Heller’s absurdist rendition of war and bureaucracy was finally published in 1961 as Catch-22. Just as From Here to Eternity did for Jones, Catch-22 became the standard by which all Heller’s subsequent novels were judged—and would always fall short.
The Heller portrayed in these pages is surprisingly free of major psychological quirks, considering he lost his father when he was four, suffered the terrors of war and became a celebrity while still a relatively young man. In addition to Catch-22, Daugherty traces the evolution and critical reception of many of Heller’s novels (including Good As Gold, for which he was paid an advance of nearly two million dollars) as well as the play We Bombed in New Haven. Daugherty also provides a lively account of the clashes between the liberal Heller and the increasingly conservative Norman Podhoretz. To examine Heller’s less public side, Daugherty interviewed dozens of sources close to the author, among them Gottlieb, Heller’s two children, his second wife and such close friends as comedian-producer Mel Brooks and author Christopher Buckley.
Heller gave the world more than just his stories; he endowed the English language with a term that has become the indispensable cry of despair for the thwarted and frustrated. Blame it on Catch-22.