Review of Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller by Tracy Daugherty
In many ways, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is the reason I majored in English as an undergraduate and, subsequently, attended graduate school to become an English professor. Put plainly, reading Catch-22 changed the course of my life more powerfully and definitively than nearly any other experience I’ve had before or since I first picked up the iconic paperback as a teenager. In his recent biography of Heller, Just One Catch, Tracy Daugherty makes it quite clear that for many Americans—and, indeed, American literature—Joseph Heller’s first novel can be said to have had at least as profound an influence as it had on me. But, as Catch-22’s status grew from bestselling novel, to the voice of a generation “besotted with the Kennedys” and, ultimately, into a towering achievement of American letters, Heller’s zany account of an American bombardier in the Second World War cast such a long shadow that even the book’s effervescent author wrestled to free himself from its influence (246).
In Daugherty’s hands, the importance of Heller’s first novel permeates every page of Just One Catch (not to mention the title). The book opens in medias res, with a fresh-faced Joseph Heller preparing to board a B-25 about to set off to bomb a bridge in Avignon. Two pages later, Daugherty describes a scene in which the man who would one day create Captain John Yossarian experiences what readers familiar with Heller’s first novel will immediately recognize as virtually identical to a pivotal moment in Catch-22: “‘The bombardier doesn’t answer,’ he heard someone shout. ‘Help him, help the bombardier.’ ‘I’m the bombardier,’ he said, ‘and I’m all right,’ but the very act of asserting what should have been obvious made him wonder if it was true” (3). The scene then shifts abruptly to a forty-something Heller touring Corsica so that he can write about it for a magazine that has courted him following his rise to literary celebrity as the bestselling author of Catch-22. In just three pages, Daugherty ensures that the reader will look for parallels between Joseph Heller’s personal life and those of his fictional creations. Consequently, much of the book’s lengthy first section, which focuses on Heller’s childhood and adolescence on Coney Island, seems to derive more of its narrative power from the reader’s attempts to see how life in a working-class Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn could influence “little Joey Heller” in ways that would eventually find articulation in Catch-22 and, to a much lesser extent, Heller’s subsequent books than to Daugherty’s picture-perfect evocations of early 20th Century New York (40).
By the time Daugherty’s narrative reaches the publication of Catch-22 in 1961, the reader will have read more than half the book. As a result, the genesis, writing, publishing, and critical reception of each subsequent novel receives considerably less attention in Dougherty’s account than Heller’s most famous book. An unfortunate side-effect of the comparative brevity of Dougherty’s discussions of Good As Gold, God Knows, Picture This, Closing Time, and A Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man (he does devote somewhat more space to Heller’s second novel, Something Happened) is that the amount of attention he pays to Catch-22 seems to reinforce the widespread critical disappointment in Heller’s fiction after Catch, despite Daugherty’s clear desire to refute such claims. That said, Dougherty’s keen critical insight into Heller’s fiction is on par with that of scholars such as Judith Ruderman and David Seed. His reading of Something Happened, in particular, is as valuable a contribution to Heller scholarship as any recent study I’ve seen. Thus, my only real complaint about what is, really, a very fine work of literary biography is that Dougherty’s brief discussions of Heller’s later works leave the reader wanting more.
As the history of an individual life, Just One Catch succeeds in painting a sympathetic portrait of Joseph Heller while refusing to gloss over the author’s often irascible nature. Heller emerges from the pages of Dougherty’s book as a life-loving neurotic, equally prone to gorging on gourmet meals and excessive nail-biting. A walking contradiction, Heller both courts the sort of fame one associates with Norman Mailer and resists it. He’s a devoted family man with a marked impatience for the mundane habits of family life, an aloof extravert, and a misanthropic people lover. Still, despite the many superficial inconsistencies in his personality, Dougherty’s Heller is a remarkably consistent man, unfailingly devoted to the creation of great novels and uncompromised by financial motivation, public expectation, or critical reception. Not surprisingly, it is here, in his writing life, that the shadow of Catch-22 is most apparent and, in some ways, most oppressive. With the unprecedented success of his debut novel among both critics and readers in the burgeoning paperback market, Heller found he could leave his job as a Madison Avenue advertising executive to devote himself to writing full-time, but the novel’s astounding popularity forever condemned Heller to writing books that would be compared—almost always unfavorably—with what has become a cornerstone of American literature.
Unfortunately (and in spite of working on a handful of projects related to his first novel in the 1960s), Heller’s literary vision prevented him from settling into a pattern of writing books that resembled Catch-22. Thus, while Heller enjoyed the attention his celebrity status provided him, his novel writing remained a sacrosanct realm where he would set about creating serious fiction that would “send ripples through American literature” (436). Thus, “[d]espite the image he sometimes peddled [in interviews] as a man unmotivated to write,” Heller’s “refusal to abandon [his novel writing] regardless of interruptions and the lure of more lucrative assignments reveal not only his ambition to be a serious artist but his inability to be anything else” (321). In other words, the very traits that helped make Catch-22 a classic essentially prevented Heller from repeating his previous success. With each subsequent novel, he was compelled, from the core of his being, to create fiction both as new and exciting as Catch-22 (which meant he could never repeat himself) and painstakingly true to his own exacting standards for “serious” art. The reading public, however, always “wanted another Catch-22” (407). Accordingly, Daugherty’s account of Heller’s life is the history of a writer whose “critical reputation declined” with the publication of each book after his first, but whose artistic vision sharpened as readers’ dissatisfaction with his work increased (449). Ultimately, Dougherty’s Heller resembles Heller’s Yossarian; he’s an idealist with such an adamantine devotion to his core beliefs that no amount of (critical) hostility could swerve him from his path. The result, Daugherty would have us believe, is that Joseph Heller has left us with a body of fiction that will, to borrow one of Yossarian’s most famous lines, “live forever or die trying.” I’m inclined to agree.
Erik Grayson is an assistant professor of English at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.