Reflections on Joseph Heller

When you write a book-length study of a living author lots of things can happen; most of them are bad.

“You’ve missed a nuance here, a shading there,” some will point out, in the iciest language possible, while others go straight to the jugular and angrily insist that you don’t know beans about their work.

Joseph Heller, who passed away Dec. 13 at the age of 76, was a wonderful exception.

Even though my book, “Understanding Joseph Heller,” made it clear how and why his work had trailed off rather badly after “Catch-22,” published in l961, he found the time to write me a letter saying how much he appreciated the seriousness of my criticism, and returned my calls whenever I needed help securing a review copy or a permission slip.

My wife usually ended up taking messages from the gravely voice and heavy Brooklyn accent on the other end of the line. She tells me that he was testy, impatient and, most of all, funny.

None of this struck me as particularly surprising, for Joseph Heller will surely be written down as one of the most inventive and verbally dazzling of our postwar novelists. Among other things, “Catch-22” changed the World War II novel forever, not only because it introduced large doses of bureaucratic absurdity (“Catch-22” itself being the most famous, and deadly, of them all), but also because it brought a verbal energy that the American novel had not enjoyed before.

Heller was born to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn and grew up in a tight-knit ethnic world (lovingly described in “Then and Now”); his background is largely responsible for the street smart, skeptical turn that his writings often take. Whatever the mixture of autobiography and imagination, some facts about Heller’s early years are indisputable — his father, a bakery truck driver, died after a botched operation when Heller was 5-years-old, and his mother and older brother were forced to deal with the harsh economic realities that played themselves out against the larger backdrop of Coney Island’s carefree, carnival atmosphere.

The irony could hardly have gone unnoticed by the young Heller.

He attended kindergarten through 12th grade in Coney Island’s public schools, and after graduating in l941, he worked briefly in an insurance company (as did Robert Slocum, the protagonist of 1974’s “Something Happened”) and as a blacksmith’s helper in the Norfolk Navy Yard before he enlisted in the United States Army Air Force in October l942.

During the war, Heller, a bombardier, experienced a chilling, clearly traumatic episode that ultimately took the form of Snowden’s agonizing death in “Catch-22,” and that solidified the writer’s lifelong opposition to war.

Discharged in l945, he married Shirley Held, also a Brooklyn native, and took advantage of the G.I. Bill by enrolling at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Heller’s California sojourn was a short-lived one. He transferred to New York University, where he majored in English. Elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1948, which is also when he received his B.A., Heller continued his education at Columbia University in Manhattan, earning his M.A. in l949. Named as a Fulbright scholar, he spent l949-1950 at Oxford University in England, where he continued his studies in English literature while also trying his hand at writing short stories. Ultimately, his talents as a writer outstripped his considerable abilities as a student, and with stories published in such prestigious magazines as Esquire and The Atlantic, it was just a matter of time until Heller would become a full-time, professional writer. In Heller’s case, the decade between l950 and l960 represented the just-a-matter-of-time years spent as an instructor at Pennsylvania State University (l950-52), an advertising copywriter for Time (l952-56) and Look (l956-58), and a promotion manager at McCall’s (l958-61). That he continued to write short fiction and movie scripts (under the pseudonym Max Orange) is true enough, just as it is even more true that the experiences he amassed in corporate America would later resurface in “Something Happened,” a darkly comic novel about the competition, anxiety, and domestic malaise that characterizes mid-level executives. All the while Heller worked on draft after draft of “Catch 22,” the novel that would change his life, as well as contemporary American fiction.

In “Catch-22,” Heller’s satiric target was the military bureaucracy; in “Something Happened,” it was the corporate establishment; in “Good as Gold” (1979), it was a combination of a thinning Jewish-American culture and Beltway politics in the Henry Kissinger era. Even when Heller’s subsequent novels misfired, as they did with “God Knows” (1984) and “Picture This” (1988), he remained an important presence as the man who had written “Catch-22,” one of the darkest, funniest and most distinctive novels of the modern period.

Heller’s “Jewishness” has been much in debate, largely because ostensibly Jewish characters are noticeably missing from “Catch-22,” but I would agree that his credentials as a “literary Jew” were always in good order; moreover, that his darkly comic rages against social injustice had a very Jewish flavor. Indeed, my wife could feel it when he called, just as I continue to feel it when I turn his pages. He mattered to me as a college reader and later as a literary critic. I am hardly alone in feeling this way. Joseph Heller will be very much missed.

Sanford Pinsker is Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA. He writes widely about Jewish American literature and culture.