That’s Some Catch: Joseph Heller Remembered at the Library

Joseph Heller was lying in bed in his four-room apartment on the West Side of Manhattan, New York, when suddenly it came to him: It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him.

The next morning, Heller went to work at the Madison Avenue ad agency where he was a copywriter and wrote, in longhand, the first chapter of what would become his masterpiece.

“Before the end of the week I had typed it out and sent it to Candida Donadio, my agent,” Heller recalled in a 1974 interview with George Plimpton. “One year later, after much planning, I began chapter two.”

That was 1953. Over the next eight years, in what would prove a laborious, agonizing, and, in retrospect, appropriately postmodern, process, Heller began birthing a book titled Catch-18. Working from a series of index cards, Heller crafted a nonlinear, looping, hilarious, and irreverent fictional narrative based on his career as a B-25 bombardier in World War Two.

As Donadio began shopping the manuscript, many editors found it incomprehensible.

But as anyone who’s read the book knows, the “Someone” in the first sentence became Captain Yossarian; Catch-18 became Catch-22; and the title itself entered the lexicon as a catchphrase for an insoluble paradox.

From Chapter 5:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.”

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

Tracy Daugherty’s new biography of  Joseph Heller, Just One Catch, deserves a respectful whistle of its own. This first full-scale biography of Heller tells not only genesis of one of the most important (and funniest) novels of the 20th century; it also gives a thorough and colorful examination a mold-breaking literary life.

Daugherty, himself an author of eight works of fiction, renders with a novelist’s imagination Heller’s life from his early days as a child of Russian immigrants in Coney Island; through his harrowing experiences flying 60 missions in World War II (only 11 fewer than the fictional Yossarian); through his fraught family life; and, most of all, through his rambunctious rise and decline as a brilliant, often vitriolic literary satirist.

As 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of Catch-22’s publication, it’s an opportune time to look back on this peerless novel’s influence. Yet doing so yields overwhelming results. More than just a cult classic about the madness of military life, the book ushered into American pop culture a new way of looking at institutions of authority – that is, mercilessly and with an eye for the laughable.

Arriving at a time in American history when Greatest Generation’s monolithic triumphs were dissolving in the murk of Vietnam and nuclear paranoia, Catch-22 was practically a how-to manual for breaking down sacred cows. In popular culture, you can see its influences anywhere from M.A.S.H. to The Office.

Though Kenneth Allsop praised the book as “The Naked and the Dead scripted for the Marx Brothers, a kind of From Here to Insanity,” there’s something reassuringly sane about Catch-22. If you’ve ever felt frustrated, stifled, or perhaps outright maddened by the institutions that rule modern American life – whether it’s the corporate workplace, the American political system, or the checkout line at Walgreen’s – you’ve got a friend in Yossarian.

In fact, you’d be absolutely crazy not to come hear Daugherty talk about and read from Just One Catch when he visits the Central Library on Wednesday, October 26, 2011, at 6:30 p.m. (After all, like each and every Signature Event at the Kansas City Public Library, it’s totally free.) Please RSVP online if you wish to attend.

About the Author

Jason Harper is the web content developer at the Kansas City Public Library. A former journalist, he has been tweeting, Facebooking, blogging, and YouTubing for the Library since 2010.