Commentary Magazine

Heller's Last Gag

Joseph Heller is a writer whose books are awaited and even long-awaited, which is a polite way of saying that after his fantastically successful first novel, Catch-22 (1961), he proceeded to turn out work very slowly. There is nothing to deduce from this in and of itself—the unparalleled slowness of Ralph Ellison, for example, has prevented no one from recognizing him as a literary master—but it provides an introduction to the fact that soon after Heller’s fourth novel, God Knows,1 appeared in the fall of 1984, it simultaneously hit the best-seller lists and was subjected to mixed reviews.

In order to grasp the significance of this fact, it is helpful to go all the way back to Catch-22. Upon its publication in 1961, there were a few demurrers, but Robert Brustein in the New Republic set what was to become the prevailing tone when he pronounced Heller “one of the most extraordinary talents now among us.” Nelson Algren agreed: “This novel is not merely the best American novel to come out of World War II; it is the best American novel that has come out of anywhere in years.”

What these reviews and others like them suggested was that Catch-22 was almost destined to take on a significance beyond the question of its literary merits. Which is, of course, what happened. Not only did Catch-22 become one of the most commercially successful novels of all time, selling over seven million copies in the next two decades, but its idioms and its characters, especially the hero, Yossarian, and his nemesis, Colonel Cathcart, passed into folklore. People described themselves as being in a “catch-22 situation” whether or not they knew what the original phrase referred to.

This was especially true of young Americans. Heller’s “catch” had to do with the conditions under which the novel’s heroes, air-force pilots based on a small Mediterranean island, could fulfill their requirements and go home. As the ruthless Colonel Cathcart constantly increases the pilots’ quotas of missions, driving them crazy when not getting them killed, the men must put in formal requests to be relieved on grounds of insanity. But since putting in such a request is in itself evidence of sanity, it disqualifies one for relief. For Heller, the utterly absurd situation in which the men of the 256th Squadron find themselves constitutes a definition of the human condition:

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.

“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.

“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.

“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone”.

And what difference does that make?

Heller stated in a 1962 interview that “the whole society is nuts—and the question is: what does a sane man do in an insane society?” In retrospect, it seems inconceivable that Catch-22 could have achieved the audience it did until there were large numbers of readers with no direct experience of World War II, readers who might confuse evil with insanity and who might be a little unfocused about the source of evil and what was to be done about it. It is, indeed, almost impossible not to note with ironic hindsight that Catch-22 began to take off just as John F. Kennedy was proclaiming that the torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans. The rather shallow idealism, the cynicism, and the blustering, petulant impatience of the 60’s found expression, in different ways, in Camelot no less than in Catch-22.

Catch-22 was a war novel, but it became a canonical work for people who neither knew nor wanted to know what the stakes were either in the war in question (against Hitler) or in the war in progress (against Communist totalitarianism). The idea was beginning to take hold in the early 60’s that the values represented by the United States, and the methods chosen to protect and enhance them, were no less absurd than the values and methods of America’s enemies. If the whole world is insane, if fighting Hitler at bottom does not make much sense when you consider that men like Colonel Cathcart are in charge and good men like Snowden or Chief Halfloaf (two of the fliers) die for no apparent purpose, then the only rational act, the only moral act, is to desert. This is exactly what the engaging hero of Catch-22 finally does. Yossarian became the prototype of the draft-dodger of the Vietnam era, expressing perfectly in a few lines of dialogue the point of view of the generation just coming of age in the early 60’s:

From now on I’m thinking only of me.

Major Danby replied indulgently with a superior smile: “But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way?”

“Then,” said Yossarian, “I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?”

Needless to say, Heller could not have been thinking of Vietnam when he wrote Catch-22. The book’s vision of World War II, however, coincided exactly with the world vision, such as it was, that came to be expressed in the slogan, “Hell no, we won’t go.” Heller himself made the connection a few years later in an antiwar play called We Bombed in New Haven (1967).



Five years after the play, in 1972, came his second novel, Something Happened. Here Heller tried to do to the corporation what he had done to the military in Catch-22. But unlike Catch-22, Something Happened is humorless and virtually plotless. Bob Slocum, the protagonist and narrator—who is in fact the novel’s only voice—lives in terror at work and at home, but never is the source of his fear explained. The world around Slocum is undescribed, abstract, completely within his own head. This did not bother the reviewers. “Joseph Heller is the first major American writer,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote in an admiring piece in the New York Times Book Review, “to deal with unrelieved misery at novel length.” And according to Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (writing in the New York Times), although Something Happened displayed “very little of the brilliant rogue humor [and] little of Mr. Heller’s verbal wit,” it was nonetheless a satisfying successor to Catch-22 because “you realize that the inside of Slocum’s head is a map of male chauvinist America, as damning an indictment of what makes men put women down as the most eloquent of feminist tracts.”

One sees in these lines the usefulness of old reviews for revealing the preoccupations of a culture. Something Happened was published at the nadir of American self-respect. As one institution after another fell into disfavor among the elites and the educated young, Heller’s reputation as a prophet and truth-teller in the shambles of middle-class civilization rose like a bull market. Perhaps that is why Lehmann-Haupt, who seems really to have been rather disappointed with Something Happened, was reluctant to say so openly and tried desperately to redeem it as an “indictment” of the “male chauvinism” that was all the negative rage in the early 1970’s.



Heller’s next novel, Good as Gold, which appeared in 1979, was another variation on his running theme that the major American institutions are run by idiots and megalomaniacs, that nothing good can come of them, and that the individual caught in them is condemned to moral degeneration and other attendant miseries. Having disposed in this way of the army in Catch-22 and the corporation in Something Happened, Heller in Good as Gold now took on the American government in similar terms.

There was, for some, a certain satisfaction to be found in Heller’s vicious display of antipathy in Good as Gold not only to political leaders like Henry Kissinger but also to the intellectual tendency that in 1979 was beginning to be widely called neoconservatism. John Leonard in the New York Times, for example, took note that Heller had “his unfriendly fun with COMMENTARY, the Public Interest, and neoconservative careerists of the viler sort.” The fact that Heller clearly knew nothing about the workings of government (or of the intellectual life) was no more held against him by most reviewers than his ignorance of the corporation had been held against him in the case of Something Happened. On the contrary: the New Republic’s Jack Beatty went so far as to compare Heller with Tolstoy, and Leonard Michaels, in the Times Book Review, asserted (incredibly) that Good as Gold “combined Einstein’s theory of relativity with Kafka’s agonies.”

Good as Gold was also Heller’s first explicit foray into the “Jewish question.” When the “Kissinger” figure, Bruce Gold, is not being humiliated by Washington anti-Semites, he is suffering at the hands of his large Jewish family. He is set upon in particular by his insanely domineering father (perhaps this is where Leonard Michaels managed to see the influence of Kafka) and his bullying older brother. The scenes with his family are apparently intended to show how American Jews lose their authentic and traditional values by exposure to this country, yet continue to despise and resent those among them who succeed (or try to succeed) in the surrounding culture.



Joseph Heller himself gave little evidence, in Good as Gold, of having a Jewish culture of any depth, or even knowing what one was or looked like. What he showed he had, in abundance, was a painful and unrelenting streak of nihilism, which, having been turned successively on the army, the corporations, the government, and the family, was now turned on the Jews.

In his new novel, God Knows, the purported memoirs of the biblical King David, all this is brought to a kind of horrible fruition. For once, though, reviewers are becoming emboldened enough to express in explicit terms the negative judgments they seemed so often unable or unwilling to bring themselves to make in the past.

Thus Christopher Lehmann-Haupt conceded in the daily New York Times that “[m]any of the jokes are extremely funny . . . [and] it’s even hard to go back to the King James version without laughing,” but concluded that “without any seriousness, its comedy seems shallow.” A few days later Mordecai Richler in the Times Book Review similarly equivocated before ending his front-page review with a long quotation from God Knows followed by a lame “Bravo.” More confident of his own taste, the New Republic‘s Leon Wieseltier simply stated, “God Knows is junk.”

As recounted in the novel by David on his deathbed, the story contained in the biblical books of Samuel and Kings is told anachronistically—that is to say, the narrator freely views biblical history from the vantage point of someone sitting in Brooklyn today. This allows for a certain amount of rather gross Borscht-belt humor, such as when David, remembering his flight from Saul, says:

The last thing I wanted was more trouble, especially in Gath. What I needed most was a bath and a good meal. The catch of the day at the Philistine inn was water snake and bay eel. I had a beer and ordered some baked whitefish with prawns and kasha varnishkas, and a pork chop with potato pancakes to start.

Ostensibly, however, God Knows is concerned with the most serious of themes: David’s relationship with God. No relationship in Judaism is more important than that between man and God, but because so much of this is determined by, and expressed through, man’s relationship with his fellow humans, life in society or community is what the greater part of Jewish thought is concerned with. To write a book about King David, who had a rather active family and political life, to say the least, and through whom God worked great deeds and spoke, in the Psalms, great words, is therefore to assume materials as rich as they are burdensome. The enormous failure of God Knows is not merely, as Lehmann-Haupt put it, that it is written in a voice that is simply not serious, but, more specifically, that its frivolousness prevents it even from grasping its own theme.

What is the source of this frivolousness? Wieseltier believes that Heller (along with several other Jewish writers of his generation) has rendered banal, and in a most offensively vulgar way, the great questions of life—life in general and Jewish life in particular. And it is certainly not difficult to quote Heller in order to demonstrate to what depths of vulgarity he can descend. But we have long since learned that literature has little to fear from vulgarity; everything depends on the uses to which it is put.



Heller, in addition to his unquestionable assets as a writer—a robust, irreverent style, and a fine ear for dialogue and slang—has had a certain fearlessness in his choice of themes and subjects: war and courage in Catch-22, the destiny of modern man in Something Happened, Jews and America in Good as Gold, God and man in God Knows. That he has taken on these big subjects is one of the reasons his novels are so eagerly awaited. The problem, and it is one that at least some of his reviewers can no longer help noticing, is that time and again he has raised these issues only to walk away from them, or to stomp on them with a blind and ugly and desiccated fury for which vulgar humor has served as an intermittently distracting cover. He has become by now a kind of icon of our literary culture; but icons are meant to be shattered, and if the reviews of God Knows are any sign, there is even some hope that this well-deserved fate will yet befall the reputation of Joseph Heller.




1 Knopf, 353 pp., $16.95.

About the Author

Roger Kaplan has written widely on French politics and on Algeria’s Islamist insurgency of the 1990’s.

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