Poetry Madness

The Oregonian
Thursday, August 11th, 2011
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Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller

by Tracy Daugherty

Tracy Daugherty Tries to Understand the Man Behind "Catch-22"

A review by John Strawn

Joseph Heller assembled the manuscript for Catch-22 from a collection of notes on index cards. The novel began to spring forth, Heller recalled, "when suddenly this line came to me: 'It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him.'"

Immediately, Heller remembered, "the book began to evolve clearly in my mind ... All this took place within an hour and a half." "Someone," of course, was Yossarian, and as Tracy Daugherty writes in his biography of Heller, Just One Catch, all of Heller's novels would be similarly inspired by the revelation of a single sentence.

The curious saga of Catch-22's creation, from this moment of germination to its publication seven years later to its enduring status as a best-seller and countercultural icon, provides a needed jolt of energy to Just One Catch. The narrative of Heller's early years in Just One Catch sticks pretty close to the account in Heller's memoir, Now and Then. But the chronology is tricked up in a vaguely Hellerian fashion, padded with flashbacks and foreshadowing, a cumbersome approach in a biography.

Heller wrote one to three pages a night, Daugherty notes, once he was under contract for the novel. Those index cards, shuffled and reassembled, provided the scaffolding for handwritten passages on yellow legal pads. Heller's agent, Candida Donadio, a pioneer in getting publishing houses to bid for manuscripts, got Heller a $750 advance, with another $750 due when the manuscript was delivered. (In 1987, Heller reportedly signed a two-book deal for $4 million.)

Despite not having access to Heller, who died in 1999, Daugherty was not hurting for material. Heller, who struggled with money after a long illness and an ugly divorce in the 1980s, sold his papers two years before his death. "When a dealer offered the Joseph Heller Papers to USC in 1997," Daugherty writes, the university "grabbed them for $135,000 -- which proved to be a steal." Why, "Heller's marked copy of Catch-22 sold for $105,160 in 2002.

Heller was working full time on Madison Avenue, a married father of two, when he started "Catch-22," a book at first called "Catch 18." He had served as a bombardier in World War II. Heller's editor, Robert Gottlieb, who obviously earned his keep plowing through all those pages, hit on the right number for the "catch" after they learned that Leon Uris was about to publish a novel called Mila 18.

Working in advertising "helped me write Catch-22," Heller said. "I felt there was a similarity between writing Catch-22 and the work I was called upon to do in the daytime."

Heller was, in his own words, "seek(ing) a way of telling a story that (was) different from the mere narration of the events of history. Putting on his critic's cap, Daugherty writes that Heller's approach "highlighted structure (music, rhythm, repetition), violated chronology, and played with language, making puns and setting up sophisticated verbal ironies (swift shifts in register from the comic to the tragic)." Daugherty writes that Heller's "favorite narrative method" was "the retrospective elegy" and observes that someone important dies in the penultimate chapter of every Heller novel.

An English professor at Oregon State University, Daugherty is an accomplished writer. Hiding Man, his 2009 biography of his teacher and friend Donald Barthelme, was a critical and commercial success. Heller is a much better-known writer than Barthelme was, though as Daugherty points out, the runaway success of Catch-22 was a burden on Heller for the rest of his career. As one friend noted, Heller had hit .400 his rookie year. How do you top that? Daugherty's exploration of Heller's handling of success is a leitmotif in Just One Catch.

Many critics believed Heller never matched the brio and brilliance of Catch-22, but plenty of writers -- and Heller counted many writers among his friends -- thought his gifts were evident in everything that followed. Something Happened, Heller's next book, was also a best-seller, but it came with a price. Several critics savaged Something Happened, but Irwin Shaw, who according to Daugherty had been an early inspiration to Heller, told him it was "a great book. A masterpiece."

The cost of Something Happened was the burden it placed on his family, especially his first wife, who hated the book. "She was embarrassed and disconcerted by the portrait of a narcissistic, fretful man whose love for his wife and children is balanced by equal bouts of revulsion, and who engages in serial adultery to take the edge off his fears of failure," Daugherty writes.

Those children, Erica and Ted, would both grow up to be writers. Erica Heller has a new memoir out this month, which makes her willingness to have also served as a principal source for Just One Catch seem especially generous.

Although of the same generation of writers as Norman Mailer and James Jones, whose World War II novels were, Daugherty observes, written in the manner of pre-war fiction, Heller wrote a novel that looked forward in both technique and sensibility while glancing backward for its setting. Catch-22 is enduringly influential.

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